‘Behind every vehicle is a person making decisions’: New media guidelines released for journalists writing about road collisions

Chris Boardman is among those supporting the new guidelines, which are designed to change the way we discuss crashes

Police tape
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New guidelines for media reporting on road collisions have been released, with the aim of reminding people that “behind every vehicle is a person making decisions.”

The UK first media reporting guidelines for crashes were released on Tuesday (May 18), as part of the UN Global Road Safety Week. 

Led by journalist Laura Laker, the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines were compiled with input from a range of professionals and academics, and have been backed by the likes of Olympic gold medalist-turned cycling campaigner Chris Boardman. 

Boardman, the 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”.  

The 10 guidelines, which were established with input from the public, road safety organisations, as well as people in the media and legal professions, are based around the existing journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness, and non-discrimination, along with some additions specific to reporting on crashes.

The guide includes avoiding use of the word ‘accident,’ using the word ‘driver’ instead of ‘car,’ and providing context for road collisions rather than presenting them as isolated incidents.

Professor Rachel Aldred, director of the Active Travel Academy, said: “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.” 

Chief executive of Cycling UK, Sarah Mitchell added: “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 their most vulnerable users.” 

Reporting guides already exist to help journalists to write about suicide, domestic violence, and refugees, and those involved in the collision guidelines hope they will be adopted in the same way. 

The guidelines are available on a dedicated website here. 

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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?”