person looks at phone with concerned expression

The way news articles report car crashes influences readers’ interpretation of what happened and who bears responsibility for the crash, new research shows.

“Adopting simple improvements in crash reporting offers a potentially powerful tool to shift public awareness of traffic crashes from unfortunate, isolated events to a preventable public health issue,” says Tara Goddard, an assistant professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University, in a paper describing the study.

The researchers gauged perceptions of subjects who read articles about crashes with slight, but significant wording changes that changed the focus of the article from the pedestrian/victim to the car/driver.

It’s the first study to demonstrate that patterns in crash reporting influence readers’ interpretation of what happened and who bears responsibility for the crash.

“We found that shifting from pedestrian- to driver-focused language reduced victim-blaming and increased perceived blame for the driver,” Goddard says.

In the articles, for example, researchers changed “A pedestrian was hit and killed by a car” to “A car hit and killed a pedestrian.”

Another example: “A car jumped the curb” became “A driver drove over the curb.” Similarly, researchers changed “A pedestrian was hit and killed” to “A pedestrian was hit and killed by a car.”

“Given the potential to save lives and prevent injury on a large scale, implementing more intentional writing patterns may be nothing less than an ethical imperative,” says Goddard, who led the study with collaborators at Rutgers University.

Goddard’s research focuses on “vulnerable” road user safety such as pedestrians and bicyclists, autonomous vehicle technology and driver behavior, auto driver cognition and attention, traffic safety and crash reduction, and sustainable transportation design.

The paper appears in Transportation Researcher Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

Source: Texas A&M University

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