Thursday, December 13, 2018

Erasing the Driver: Active and Passive Voice in Crash Reports

Two short news pieces in today's paper, right next to each other on the same page, in fact, show our weird incoherence on the way we talk about crashes.

The first is full of the passive voice and focuses on the vehicles as the main grammatical subjects and as the agents. "A man was killed...after his car was was rear-ended by a commercial motor vehicle."

Immediately below it we have more active voice and a person as the subject and agent, "a man died after crashing his motorcycle."

Last month there were a couple of other clear contrasts:

Active: "A driver crashed through the front doors"

Passive: "a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle"
When driver error or malignance, like alcohol or criminal intent, is clear, we are more comfortable centering the subject and talking about driver agency.

But when there is the prospect of an error by a person on foot, or dark clothing, or fog, we assimilate the crashes to the blameless category of "accident" and resort to the passive voice and erasing the driver.  But even in poor visibility, drivers are responsible for the safe operation of a vehicle, and we should change our expectations about things like the basic speed. At the very least, crash reporting should employ more neutral language, and not rush to exonerate drivers and dispace blame onto the mysterious operations of a vehicle that somehow crashed into a thing/person/car.

Columbia Journalism Review

Addendum, December 14th

Here's another.

This is more obituary than news story, but it still erases the driver

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added "holocaust survivor hit, killed by car" example from today's paper.