By Erin Scheffels, PhD
On March 9, 2020, a group of dedicated professionals of various backgrounds and expertise met in St. Petersburg to discuss a new age of bicyclist and pedestrian safety. The workshop was part of a “Road to Zero” grant-funded series provided by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at University of South Florida, with support from the National Safety Council.
The focus of the “Shifting Media Narratives” workshop series is on the writing in media reports that describe fatal traffic crashes involving motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The current formula for reporting on this particular type of crash appears to be standard and factual, but an emerging body of transportation research suggests that it is skewed (Goddard et al., 2019; Magusin, 2019; Ralph et al. 2019; Scheffels et al., 2019).
The results of the aforementioned studies show us that words do matter when it comes to the ways in which we make sense of fatal traffic crashes involving motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. More specifically, the results demonstrate that our use of the word “accident” creates the perception that these types of crashes are not preventable. Fact choices, such as information about pedestrians’ use of crosswalks and bicyclists’ use of bike lights or helmets, put the bulk of perceived responsibility on vulnerable road users, while passive sentences make motorists’ responsibility less obvious.
The “Shifting Media Narratives” workshop series attends to these issues, moving the conversation away from a resigned “blame game” in order to focus on collaborative problem-solving and effective decision-making. Thus far, the workshops have been successful in bringing groups of caring people together to create a more equitable brand of traffic safety as we work to reduce the number of fatalities on our roadways. In each session, our conversations have been spirited and communal as innovative thinkers reach across the table to share resources and talk about potential solutions.
To protect our colleagues throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the grant is currently under revision to move the workshops online in the near future. In the meantime, we would like to express our gratitude for the community leaders, public information officers, media professionals, transportation specialists, advocates, and police officers who have contributed to our efforts so far. We wish you all health and safety during this difficult time and look forward to seeing you online soon to continue our work together.