The UK’s first media reporting guidelines for road collisions are being launched during UN Global Road Safety Week 2021, 17-23 May, to help reinforce existing codes of conduct for the highest standards of reporting in broadcasting, online and in print.
Every 20 minutes someone is killed or seriously injured on UK roads, events that change lives forever – and despite decades of research showing most collisions are preventable by tackling speeding, distracted driving and drink and drug driving, road danger is too often seen as inevitable, and action on it too little too late.
Media has a powerful role to play in shaping public discourse, and a public consultation on draft Guidelines in Autumn 2020 received almost 200 respondents from members of the public, road safety organisations, media, legal, and policing professions, 72% of whom agreed with the Guidelines’ principles, with a further 21% supporting its aims.
The ten Guidelines incorporating those responses, along with evidence and research, are supported by prominent road safety and road user organisations and professionals, including the AA, the FIA Foundation, RoadPeace, the Transport Research Laboratory, and Transport for London, British Cycling, Cycling UK and Living Streets.
Professor Rachel Aldred, Director, Active Travel Academy, said: “The Active Travel Academy is delighted to have developed these guidelines which are based on research and expert input. We know much good road collision reporting already exists and we hope that the guidelines will help spread this good practice.
“The research tells us that language matters, as it helps shape how we see and treat others. So for instance referring to drivers rather than only their vehicles helps remind us that behind every vehicle – be it a car, an HGV, a cycle or a motorcycle – is a person making decisions that affect the safety of others.”
The ten clauses speak to core journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness, non-discrimination and justice. Clauses recommend journalists, among other things avoid use of the term ‘accident’, to say ‘driver’ instead of ‘car’ and provide context to road collisions, rather than presenting them as isolated incidents. The Guidelines also offer journalists some contacts in road safety, policing and law.
Edmund King, AA president, said: “The impact of five deaths per day across UK roads sadly tends to get diluted. Imagine the outcry if a report stated that all passengers in 56 full coaches had died. That is the annual equivalent of five people dying each day. There would be a national outcry, public inquiries, prime ministerial statements and action taken. Each death on the roads is a personal tragedy irrespective of mode of transport. Hence it is important that all road users are treated equally in the reporting of collisions.”
Guidelines already exist to help journalists report on suicides, domestic violence and refugees, allowing expertise and research to help inform a fair, accurate and balanced public debate on those topics.
We hope the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines (RCRG) will do the same for road collisions, representing an industry standard by consensus that will continue to improve over time.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Members of the NUJ ethics council have been involved in the creation of these new guidelines and have supported the project from its inception. We hope the information can help journalists and students as well as encourage accurate and fair reporting.”
The Guidelines were co-ordinated by journalist Laura Laker with the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, with input from a broad range of professionals. Responses to our consultation in Autumn 2020 revealed how powerfully road danger impacts people’s lives, particularly those who walk and cycle.
The Guidelines are available on dedicated website www.rc-rg.com/guidelines, including in an accessible format. The consultation report is also published on the website today, with analysis and examples of responses from the public consultation, and outlining how the draft Guidelines were adapted to feedback. References, in a separate document, list research and thinking behind clauses, where relevant.
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Will Norman, London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, said: “Every death on our roads is a tragedy and should be reported as such which is why I’m pleased to support these new media guidelines. Journalists play a key role in changing attitudes and sensitive, not sensationalist, reporting can make a big difference in changing perceptions and behaviour.”
Mary Creagh, Chief Executive, Living Streets said: “While we all share our roads, we do not share the risk. People walking cause the least road danger but account for disproportionately more casualties than would be expected for the distance travelled. Vulnerable pedestrian groups – children and older people – are particularly at risk on our roads.
“When someone is tragically injured or killed on our roads, it is essential that the incident is reported accurately to minimise the pain, grief and suffering to their loved ones.”
Victoria Lebrec, of RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, said: “I was run over in 2014 and my left leg was amputated as a result of the collision. I narrowly survived. A headline at the time read: ‘A cyclist who was nearly killed and lost her leg after she was hit by a skip lorry has hugged and forgiven the driver who was fined £750 for his role in the accident.’
“It reads as though the skip lorry is to blame for the crash. And why am I forgiving someone if it was an accident? And what would the role of the driver be, given it was an accident? What’s he even being fined for?”
Chris Boardman, Walking and Cycling Commissioner for Greater Manchester, said: “In the last few years we have learned more than ever how much the framing of messages shapes our opinions even more than the content, so it’s high time we had guidance that ensured words reflected the facts, particularly when reporting on collisions”.
Sarah Mitchell, Cycling UK Chief Executive, said: “The biggest barrier to more people cycling is the perception that riding on our roads is dangerous. Adjusting the way we report road traffic collisions as outlined in these new guidelines could go a long way to addressing these concerns, while also, it is to be hoped, making our roads safer for its most vulnerable users.”