Your words matter: How to best report on traffic crashes

Traffic Safety Pulse News

News coverage can shape public perceptions, and the language used when reporting on traffic crashes can affect a reader’s interpretation of what happened, who’s at fault, and what to do about it. The following guide, created from a study out of Texas A&M University, is intended to help write press releases in a way that reduces victim blaming and elevates crashes as a preventable public health issue. 

Best practices for language to use when reporting traffic crashes/fatalities:

Instead of this:

Use this: Why:

“A pedestrian was killed in an accident on Main Street.”

“A pedestrian was killed in a crash on Main Street.”

The term “accident” conveys a sense of faultlessness and inevitability. “Crash” indicates these incidents are preventable.

“A pedestrian was hit and killed.”
“A bicyclist was injured when she was hit by a car.”
“A pedestrian was hit and killed by a driver.”
“A bicyclist was injured when she was hit by a driver.”
Referring to an object (the car) instead of a person (the driver) neutralizes blame.
“A pedestrian was hit and killed by a driver.” “A driver hit and killed a pedestrian.” Putting the pedestrian as the subject creates the automatic perception that they were at fault.
“A car jumped the curb.” “A driver drove over the curb.” Focusing on the car, not the driver, obscures the fact that the person behind the wheel was at fault.

Other best practices:

  • Include greater themes related to the incident, instead of treating it like an isolated incident. (E.g. "This is the 10th fatal crash this year.”).
    • Linking each instance to the epidemic of traffic deaths can help bring about meaningful solutions.
    • This can be incorporated into a quote within a press release. For example:
      “While I am unfamiliar with the details of this specific crash, I can say that this is not an isolated incident. Today’s crash is just the most recent in an epidemic of crashes that claim the lives of hundreds of Coloradans each year. We can save lives, like the life of [victim’s name], by making common-sense changes to driving behavior.”
  • Shift the focus away from the victim and towards the driver (or, if necessary, the vehicle). A press release or article can focus on the driver without making any assignment of fault.
  • Be mindful of the details you mention. If you say a pedestrian was outside a crosswalk, but don't mention that the nearest crosswalk was half a mile away, it may make the person seem at fault, even if they weren't.
  • Include elements that humanize crash victims, when possible.