How to Write a Headline About Drivers Who Kill

CC BY 4.0. Tony Webster on Wikipedia

Many people roll their eyes when I complain about this, but language is important.

It is a subject we have been going on about for years, how people with knives or baseball bats kill people, but somehow when a car is involved, it has "agency"- and it does the killing.

There have been some egregious examples recently, my favorite being from the BBC where a car deliberately chased someone,

And from the CBC, where a pedestrian had a collision with a car. It is a long struggle to get people who write about crashes to understand why this is important, just as it took years to get people to start saying crash, not accident. It's not a trivial issue, as Matt Richtel noted in the New York Times.

“When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’ ” Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a driver safety conference this month at the Harvard School of Public Health. “In our society,” he added, “language can be everything.”

That's why a lot of activists and safety advocates are on the case about drivers, not cars, killing pedestrians and cyclists. But it is hard to do and looks odd at first; that's why I perked up when I saw Jonathan Maus' headline in, An auto user killed a woman who was walking legally across SE Stark and 148th today.

"Auto user" is a new way to put it. In the article, he uses the more common term, with an active driver hitting a person walking, rather than a passive person being hit by a car.

The Portland Police Bureau is investigating a collision that happened just after midnight this morning at SE Stark and 148th. A driver hit and killed a person crossing the street on foot; then the driver fled the scene.

Then there is a variation on the theme, with a bit of passive but another variation.

Just three months ago a 40-year-old man walking on Stark was hit and killed by someone using a car. And last March — also at 148th and Stark — another auto user killed someone walking and then fled the scene.

Maus is extremely careful in every occurrence to make it clear; cars are not doing the killing, people, drivers, auto users, someone using a car.. Jonathan, like me, is struggling to find the right word or phrase. Others are even inventing words like Drivist. I don't know what the right answer is but I do know that it is not a car doing this.

Maus is also mostly careful to use the active voice, that the driver is doing something, not the passive voice where the walker is being hit by something. This is important, a whole different tone.

Despite the clear and present threats to public safety posed by streets like Stark, people are still able to — and very frequently do — drive dangerously on them. And Portlanders pay dearly for the consequences.

When I first read the last sentence, I thought it a bit passive and not strong enough.

The woman killed this morning is the second person to die in a traffic crash in Portland so far this year.

To keep in the active form, I would have thought he should write:

The woman was the second that a driver killed in Portland so far this year.

But on revisiting it, that might be pushing it. We don't need to beat people over the head.

This is an important issue, no matter how much people roll their eyes. And Maus has written an important post giving us something to think about as we figure out what is the best word, the best way to change the way people talk about crashes.

This is something every urban activist and writer has to think about. Crash, not accident was a campaign that has had some impact; this year it is driver, not car and active, not passive.