Saturday, 20 July 2013

'A woman was injured in a collision with a bicycle yesterday' - How to Do Things With Words

In 1955 J. L Austin published his greatest work of linguistic theory, How to Do Things With Words. What Austin writes about speech-acts isn't particularly relevant but if we want to improve things in the UK it is incredibly important to consider not only what we say about cycling, but how we say it. Given how much cycling has been (and continues to be) stigmatised in Britain and many other countries this attention to linguistic detail becomes especially important.

A woman was injured in collision with a bicycle yesterday. 

How strange does that sentence sound? It reads bizarrely because it suggests that either the woman walked into a stationary bicycle or a bicycle came out of control all by itself - perhaps let loose down a hill? - and hit the woman. What this sentence does extremely effectively is absolve whoever was riding the bicycle in question of responsibility for the hurt done to the woman. The hurt was done by the bicycle, not the person in control of it. Clearly, this is not the way we have been conditioned in the UK to think about those riding bikes. This sentence would never occur in a newspaper or a blog. In fact, we wouldn't even write:
a woman was injured in a collision with a cyclist yesterday.
This still sounds slightly mendacious because in all likelihood the cyclist collided with the woman, not the other way around. We would probably instead write something like:
a woman was injured after being hit by a cyclist yesterday.
This choice of words makes clear that the blame lies neither with the bicycle itself, nor with the old woman, but with the person in control of that bicycle. Bicycles are capable of travelling at far faster (and more dangerous) speeds than pedestrians which means the onus falls naturally on the cyclist to avoid the pedestrian, rather than other way around. We can, therefore, relatively safely assume in the case of most collisions that the cyclist was at fault; he or she was probably going too fast, or trying to overtake too close to the pedestrian in question. Obviously this will not be the case all of the time, but we can understand why newspapers, bloggers, and the general public might, in the absence of more detailed knowledge of who was at fault, report such an event in this way.

All of these arguments could be applied to collision between bicycles and motor vehicles.

Motor vehicles are capable of going far faster than bicycles. They are also, crucially, capable of doing fatally larger amounts of damage. If you cycle into a lorry you may get a few bruises, but you're unlikely to seriously injure yourself. If drive a lorry into a cyclist you will almost certainly kill them. Therefore, it is relatively safe to assume that in most collisions - especially fatal ones - that the motorist was at fault in some way (and this is supported many statistical studies, including figures released in May by Westminster Council). Moreover, even in the rare cases when the motorist is not at all at fault, it is still the motorist's momentum and force that will lead to the death of the person on the bike. In which case sentences like this seem ridiculous:
three-year-old boy dies after collision with a truck.
A three-year-old boy is not going to die if he runs into a truck. He will only die if the truck runs over him. Surely this sentence is therefore an insult to that young boy's memory, because it makes the boy sound completely responsible for his own death?

We've been taught to use language in this heartless manner by a motor lobby and government that is continually seeking to normalise the deaths and serious injuries that are daily caused by motorists in this country. For instance, 1,901 people died in road accidents in Britain in 2011 alone. By contrast, between 2001 and May 2012 a total of (only) 414 British military personnel have died on operations in Afghanistan. That means almost five times as many British people died in one year on our streets, than in over a decade in Afghanistan.

Is the life of someone killed by motor traffic worth less than someone killed in Afghanistan? Why don't we care about 1,901 people being killed on our streets every year?

We don't care because people being killed by cars and HGVs is constantly normalised in our society as something to be expected, or even embraced. The newspapers rarely report it, and if they do they use language - as demonstrated above - that places the blame with the victim even as the event is being reported. We would never write, 'soldier dies after collision with a bullet'. But, sickeningly, we do write, 'boy dies after collision with a truck'.This makes us accept that people must be killed on our roads as a fact of life, when it fact it isn't. British roads don't have to be as they are. Dutch roads are around seven times safer cyclists than those in the UK, and if we had Dutch levels of road safety for cyclists in this country, around 80 of the 118 people killed cycling in Britain in 2012 (our 'Olympic' year) might still be alive.

Part of creating this change lies, I believe, in de-normalising road traffic deaths, and making them appear as they are. Namely, as the direct result (whether criminally careless or not) of those in control of the automobiles that kill people, rather than as unavoidable acts of nature. Therefore, instead of:
three-year-old boy dies after collision with a truck.
It is more correct write:
three-year-old boy dies after being run over by a truck driver.
Put in these terms, this event feels far less necessary. We want to do something about it. We want to fix things and prevent three-year-old boys being run over by truck drivers. Obviously, this is exactly how the freight and motor industry don't want us to think because it will make us demand higher (and more expensive) standards of safety equipment from lorries and motor vehicles using our roads, whether or not the driver in question is convicted of dangerous driving. It will make us demand lower speed limits in our towns and cities, because we don't want young children being run over by truck drivers, even if the child was at fault. It will make us demand higher standards of driver training from those who use vehicles that continually maim and kill us.

The sentence 'three-year-old boy dies after being run over by a truck driver' might sound unnecessarily harsh on the driver in question, but it's what actually happened. The only reason it sounds harsh is because we have been programmed to understand deaths due to road traffic accidents as an inescapable part of modern living, rather than the direct, avoidable responsibility of the motorist concerned. Which they are. If the motorist had driven differently, and/or the road itself had been designed differently, the vast majority of those that are killed on our roads wouldn't be killed. So when we report these events why shouldn't we describe what actually happened?

Therefore, in reporting new fatalities on our roads, we should at all costs avoid a language that has been conditioned onto us by a powerful motor lobby and motor-centric governments. Jasmine Gardner recently wrote a pro-segregated cycling piece in Evening Standard. There was a huge amount to commend in this article, particularly 'the idea that segregated cycle lanes wouldn't work in London is just nonsense'. However, I did notice that even Jasmine Gardner felt obliged to write:
Alan Neve was run down by a tipper truck at High Holborn.
Now, driverless cars do exist (in California). However, this tipper truck was not one of them. The above sentence is incorrect. We've been taught to write and think this way to prevent us from calling for road safety measures that might negatively affect the profitability of the extended motor industry. The correct way to report this event would be:
Alan Neve was run down by a tipper truck driver at High Holborn.
Or, better still:
Alan Neve was run over and killed by the driver of a tipper truck at High Holborn.
Alan Neve has just been killed (bringing the total number of Londoners killed on bikes since Boris Johnson became Mayor in 2008 to 69), and it is important for cycling and safe-streets campaigner to avoid the kind of language which pretends the vehicles killing and maiming those on our streets are magically driverless.

In the extremely rare case of serious collisions between pedestrians and those on bikes we don't write, 'pensioner hit by a bicycle'. Regardless of who was at fault, we would usually write 'pensioner hit by cyclist' or 'pensioner hit by man on a bike'. This makes sense.

Why shouldn't this phrasing also make sense when motorists kill and maim those on bikes? i.e:
Person on a bike killed by driver of car/bus/lorry/HGV/tipper truck.
Or, for headline-friendly brevity:

Car/bus/lorry/HGV/tipper truck driver kills person riding bike.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying cyclists are never responsible for road traffic accidents. I'm saying:
  1. regardless of who is the 'guilty party', it is manifestly the motor vehicle driving into a bicycle, rather than a bicycle cycling into a motor vehicle, that leads to people being killed
  2. driverless vehicles do not exist in UK
Our use of the English language must reflect this.


I found the TED talk below by Mikael Colville-Andersen (also known as Copenhagenize) and this article by AsEasyAsRidingABike helpful in formulating this post.


  1. Quite right. At work, I do not use the term "accident" for the same reason as it normalises things - these things are not avoidable.

    I know this has been debated loads of times, but even if statements are a few words longer, they should be accurate and the press are as much to blame as anyone.

    "a cyclist died in an accident with a tipper truck"

    is the other way things get reported, rather than;

    " a cyclist was killed when a tipper truck driver failed to give him enough space because he was in a hurry as he had a load he needed to get to site. His employer was partly blamed because of the dangerous levels of pressure put on tipper drivers to get to the site in heavy traffic."

    I constantly have rows with our press office in work as I want to explain things properly and technically correct; they want a quick line for the local rag. I often refuse to suggest a statement or clear what they want to send.

  2. I agree with your analysis. But is it not possible that these headlines are structured like this to avoid contempt of court proceedings? Or libel actions?

    I'm not saying this is acceptable behaviour, I'm just saying this might be the reason...

  3. @The Ranty Highwayman

    I completely agree. Even if a longer statement is needed, it's vitally important to stop making these killings look like "accidents".


    Interesting point. I don't believe these headlines are structure like this to avoid contempt of court or libel actions. This is because it isn't in any way libellous to say:

    'a driver killed a Londoner on a bike today, but it wasn't the drivers fault because the man on a bike randomly swerved into his path.'

    One could also say:

    'a driver killed a Londoner on a bike today because he was driving too fast and unable to respond to an emerging hazard in time, meaning the driver hit the Londoner at excessive speed and killed him'

    These sentences could describe exactly the same accident. One could be contempt of court, one could not be.

    But 'a driver killed a Londoner on a bike today' is surely exactly what happened, no matter who as at fault? Cars don't drive themselves...

    I think the press use these headlines because we've all been trained and raised to normalise road traffic deaths as "accidents" rather than accidental "killings".