Journalist, Laura Laker, seeks support in revamping the road crash media reporting guidelines
Laura Laker is a freelance transport and environment journalist, travel and features writer and blogger for the Guardian, Sunday Times, road.cc, Cyclist and Cycling Plus, among others.
She is the author of the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines, which were launched in 2021. She is now working on a ‘reboot’ of the guidance, which involves collaborating with professionals, from police to the media, to build on the existing document – and, ultimately, improve the language used around road collisions.
By Laura Laker
In 2021, I published the UK’s first guidelines outlining how the media and professionals can talk accurately and fairly about road collisions – some of which, i.e. saying ‘crash not accident’ RoadPeace has been calling for, for decades. With the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines represented the culmination of many months of team effort, both within the ATA and in consultation with people across society affected by, or working in road danger reduction. This work is part of a growing understanding of the impact of language on how we perceive a problem like road danger, and how it can shape our efforts to tackle that problem.
The outpouring of support for the Guidelines has been heartening but their uptake in media and the professional world still has a way to go. In the intervening months since publication, people on social media and beyond have alerted me to news items that omit mention of a driver in a collision report, or, far less commonly, use the word accident. Frustration is at times directed at journalists, sometimes unhelpfully because we are, in effect, working to cross purposes. It became clear certain wording, which journalists reach for as it represents ‘common usage’ (the ‘bloke in the pub’ lexicon journalists like me are trained to use) was in fact coming from professionals in road safety. It makes sense journalists, often under time pressure and rightly cautious about incorrectly apportioning blame, follow the lead of ‘blue light’ services. This is something researchers from the US also found – and it’s something they were able to improve, by collaborating with police on communications around collisions.
This year, I won funding from the Foundation for Integrated Transport’s Alastair Hanton Memorial Fund to try and improve language around collisions beyond the media. And that’s where you, as a RoadPeace supporter, working in the field of road danger reduction, can help. If you’re in police or professional bodies, and you want to be involved, I’m looking to link up with people across the board to understand how you work and see where improvements can be made.
While most of us understand it’s ‘crash not accident’, there are other issues at play here, and that’s why we published ten guidelines following a public consultation. There is still some hesitation surrounding Guideline 3, the recommendation to use ‘driver’ instead of ‘vehicle’ in collision descriptions. While this hesitation is understandable – we are used to ‘car crashed’, when it comes to a motor vehicle driver and ‘cyclist crashed’ when it’s someone on a bike – it is an element that needs improving. We know obscuring or removing the presence of a driver in communications can focus an audience’s mind instead on those who are mentioned; this tends to be the victims of road danger. How we square that circle is not set in stone, it’s a work in progress. My hope is that this process can help provide the most balanced coverage of road crashes possible.
If you want to find out more please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The existing guidelines can be found here.
Updated on: 5 October 2023