Stop blaming victims for traffic violence

Stop blaming victims for traffic violence

Category: Auto Accidents

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Barry TaylorGary MinorZy’aire Joshua. Each of these people was killed by traffic violence, and they also have something else in common: with the words ‘outside the crosswalk,’ the authorities and media reports blamed them (and many others) for their own deaths, sometimes before the full facts were known.

In our 15-minute news cycle, an initial account that blames someone who can no longer speak for themselves can set the narrative not just for what befell those individuals, but for how we think about the causes of violence on the roads. Highlighting a victim’s perceived role in their own injury or death diminishes the case for taking a more effective public health approach to traffic violence, which emphasizes causality over blame.

The root cause couldn’t be clearer: when we do so much to make driving easy in cities, we make every other mode of transportation hard, inconvenient, and risky.

Contested urban spaces

Why would an institution with as much narrative-setting power as the police or the media highlight the positionality of the victim over, say, the speed of the car, the distance from car to cyclist, the width of the road, nearby lighting, or if it happened at a known crash hot spot? The nature of traffic violence, pitting 2-ton speed machines against the vulnerable human body, means that the location of casualties’ bodies once authorities arrive will almost never be where the impact occurred. Both the media and police know this as well as anyone.

A Twitter thread highlights another fault in this causal logic: it’s not rare to see the argument in traffic planning discussions that sometimes the safest crosswalk is the one that isn’t there at all!

Drivers, the logic goes, might not respect them if the vibes aren’t right, so better to avoid giving pedestrians a false sense of security; but if pedestrians don’t respect the absence of a crosswalk and get hit, they’re the ones at fault. Pedestrians are killed in crosswalks, too, even raised ones. Drivers run into buildings and schools. Where exactly can they expect to be safe?

It’s not just about the crosswalk. How many times have you heard a report that emphasized a car crash victim supposedly doing something risky over broader causal factors, implying some sort of just-desserts? Where have you heard that before? Probably any time there was a structural problem that no one seemed keen on solving.

But modern health promotion techniques don’t deal in sins, real or imagined. They look at why something happens, not why it should or shouldn’t happen and who deserves blame. They deal in causality that can be addressed, or failed, on a population level.

It’s time we stop putting up with this systemic misinformation cycle.

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