When it comes to automotive violence and mayhem, we’ve become more desensitized than a perineum after a Gran Fondo on a maladjusted saddle, as is apparent from the way we report on incidents in which someone in a car drives into someone on a bike.
News stories about drivers who hit cyclists often implicitly absolve the driver and blame the victim. First, there’s almost always a lack of agency coupled with the passive voice: it’s never “a driver hit a cyclist.” Instead, it’s usually something like “a cyclist was hit by a car.” (Yet you never read about how a shooting victim “collided with a bullet.” Go figure.) Then there’s generally some insinuation that it must have been the victim’s fault, often along the lines of “It’s unclear whether the victim was wearing a helmet.” And despite a big push to change this, it’s also fairly typical to refer to the collision as an “accident,” even before anybody knows what really happened; in journalism, the oxymoronic “police are still investigating the accident” is reserved almost exclusively to incidents involving cars.
It’s not just reporters who write this way, either. When it comes to drivers hurting or killing people on bikes, this kind of unconscious victim-blaming permeates every aspect of our discourse. Consider this account from the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, which was accompanied by chilling photos of a child’s bike underneath a Toyota Tacoma, and which also appeared on a local website under the headline “Truck Hits Father and Child on Bicycle.” Highlights include:
A little girl and her father were crossing the street at an intersection with no crosswalk. The girl was on her bicycle when they both were struck by the pickup truck.
Luckily the injuries were minor to the little girl despite her not wearing a bicycle helmet.
The California vehicle code requires bicycle riders under the age of 18 years to wear a bicycle helmet while riding on a public road...Properly-fitted helmets provide protection from a potentially life-threatening head injury.
The Santa Barbara City Fire Department would like to remind everyone to promote bicycle safety for your children and have them wear a properly fitted helmet when riding.
If you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering from Victim-Blaming Syndrome (VBS) you probably see nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, you may even be a little miffed at the father for not making sure his precious child was wearing a helmet. If, however, you’ve donned the “They Live” Sunglasses and see all this brainwashing for what it is, you’re probably not even reading this because you’re too busy trying to get your fist back out of the wall after punching a hole through it.
Either way, the story quoted above is under 200 words long. There’s not a single mention of the motorist; instead, the victims were “struck by a pickup truck,” as though it were somehow self-driving. The account also contains no fewer than five mentions of the word “helmet,” yet it doesn’t remind people to drive more carefully or cite relevant motor vehicle code, not even once. The helmet exhortation is especially vexing since the little girl only sustained minor injuries. So, what, are we supposed to believe that if she’d been wearing a helmet the driver wouldn’t have hit her in the first place? Or are we supposed to think a child’s bicycle helmet offers meaningful protection against a Tacoma and that the real mitigating factor isn’t the luck that just happened to be on her side?
It’s almost like, in our bizarre logistical and ethical framework, dying while wearing a helmet is preferable to surviving without one.
But focussing on the child’s helmetlessness isn’t the only insinuation of guilt here. There’s also the mention of how the girl and her father were “crossing the street at an intersection with no crosswalk.” To read this, you’d be forgiven for thinking the girl’s father was duping her into playing a real-life game of Crossy Road. However, as many people pointed out in a lenghty Twitter thread, according to California state law all intersections have crosswalks and therefore drivers are required to yield whether they’re marked or not:
The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection…
The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian within any marked or unmarked crosswalk shall exercise all due care and shall reduce the speed of the vehicle or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.
So, unless father and daughter leaped off of the sidewalk into oncoming traffic and shouted “Surprise!”, this collision is entirely the driver’s fault.
To their credit, after being called out on all of the above, the Santa Barbara City Fire Department were contrite. Chief Eric Nickel tweeted the following:
It was refreshing to see him acknowledge this. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that these are people who dedicate their lives to saving the lives of others. Therefore, any safety advice they offer is no doubt well-intentioned, as misdirected as it may be.
Yet it’s essential to hack away at the gigantic blind spot that allows us to see the actual problem, which is people driving into other people with their cars. We’ve got a long way to go in that regard. But we’ll know we’re making progress when we stop blaming children and their parents for winding up underneath pickup trucks.