Misbehaving and incompetent drivers get off too easy in the media. How many times have you seen news headlines like these?
“Greyhound bus caught going twice the speed limit”
“Six killed when train hits SUV”
“Pickup truck backs up over mother, 2 children in tent”
“Car drives into Queens Quay streetcar tunnel”
When was the last time you said, or heard someone say, something like, “That pickup truck cut me off!” or, “Look at the way that car is driving!”
We’ve built up an entire lexicon around not blaming drivers for their bad behaviour or lack of ability – semantic gymnastics that support the default position that drivers somehow aren’t responsible for what their vehicles do. When someone gets hurt in a collision involving a motor vehicle, it is reasonable to assume that — except in rare cases involving mechanical or medical problems — a person was, or was supposed to be, in control of the vehicle. You might argue that this style is an attempt to keep headlines brief or avoid a libel lawsuit, but I think it exposes a more important issue.
In linguistics, the issue here is “agency.” An ‘agent’ is defined as an entity that is capable of action. It is an axiom that only an agent can be responsible.
In the above headlines, the Greyhound bus driver either chose to exceed the speed limit or didn’t realize he was speeding. That train didn’t leap off its tracks and chase down the SUV; a train is limited to travel in one dimension and due to its large mass it takes a very long time to slow down. If there’s a collision involving a vehicle and a train, it’s almost a sure bet that the driver is responsible for placing his vehicle in the train’s path. That pickup driver wasn’t thinking clearly because she’d just had a fight with her boyfriend. The 'tunnel driver' either ignored or didn't see the many warning signs posted.
Let’s re-write these headlines to reflect what really happened:
“Greyhound bus driver caught going twice the speed limit”
“Driver steers SUV in front of moving train”
“Angry driver backs up over mother, 2 children”
“Driver misses warning signs, drives into Queens Quay streetcar tunnel”
Aren’t these a more accurate depiction of the events?
While we’re on the subject of word misuse, here’s another type of headline you’ll often see:
“Speed, alcohol to blame for multi-car accident”
According to Wikipedia, ‘blame’ is “the act of censuring, holding responsible, making negative statements about an individual or group that their action or actions are socially or morally irresponsible.” In other words, blame can only be assigned to an agent.
A car is not responsible if it is operated in a reckless manner, but the person driving it is. A six-pack of beer cannot be held accountable for a collision, but the person who consumed it can be. So the above headline should at the very least read “Speeding, drinking to blame…” so it is clear there’s an agent involved. Better yet, “Impaired, speeding driver causes multi-car accident.”
The next time you’re reading the news and come across a story about a motor vehicle collision, try this: change the word “car” or “truck” to “driver”. It’s amazing how quickly that changes the tone, calling it more like it is. You don’t get hit by a car, you get hit by someone driving a car.
To paraphrase the National Rifle Association’s motto, “Cars don’t kill people, drivers do.”
The above is an excerpt from my book “Letters to a Driving Nation: Exploring the Conflict between Drivers and Cyclists.”