Words Matter: How the World View of the Road Is Always From the Windshield Perspective

Screen capture. Toronto Star

What would you think happened if you read that tweet and headline? Probably that a bus collided with a car. But that's just the windshield perspective.

Former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford hated surface public transit. He articulated: "People want subways, folks. They want subways, subways. They don’t want these damned streetcars blocking up our city. That’s what they don’t want." He may be dead and gone, but he poisoned the conversation about the role of cars and transit in Toronto. Here, they all take the windshield perspective; If a taxi driver purposely runs down a cyclist, the police have to study whether the cyclist deserved it before they press charges. (They eventually did). And when reporters write about it, they take the windshield perspective in their choice of words. Bike activist Aaron Naparstek has written:

Words are powerful. They shape the way we see the world around us.

Example: in Toronto last week, a car rear-ended a bus at high speed. The passenger in the back seat, who apparently wasn't wearing a seat belt, was killed. It is a pretty common assumption in rear-enders that the person driving the vehicle behind is responsible. But that's not how it got reported in Toronto. One tweeter noticed:

I followed up after seeing the Toronto Star headline:

It sounds silly, but it is important. Drivers in Toronto have a hatred of surface transportation, of anything that will get in their way and slow them down. That's why they will spend billions on a subway that serves very few people instead of a surface system that serves far more; "They don’t want these damned streetcars blocking up our city." Blaming buses for crashes just reinforces that attitude.

The bus and its driver didn't do anything but exist. As Cameron McLeod notes, newspapers writers don't talk of wall crashes or tree crashes, yet that is essentially what this is, the driver of the car drove into the wall that is the back of a bus. The Star headline makes it sound like the bus ran into the car.

Noticing the criticism, the Star reversed the order in the headline; now we have the car colliding with the bus. I am not certain that it is much better. In Torontoist, Erica Lenti notes in a post titled Why is Toronto Media Assigning Blame in a Fatal Scarborough Collision to a Rear-Ended TTC Bus?

The story brings to attention the need for consistent standards and practices when it comes to reporting on road safety and collisions. Journalists and editors all have a responsibility to use the most accurate language when reporting. Mistakes happen, of course, but they should be corrected and appended.

It is also a reminder that so many of us, including the Star journalist, take what is known as the windshield perspective; as Sarah Goodyear described it in Grist:

That’s the point of view people develop when their ass is planted firmly in the driver’s seat — a point of view in which people on the other side of the glass are somehow always responsible for everything that happens to them. Once you’re aware of the concept, windshield perspective turns out to be everywhere.

It is the windshield perspective that has a bus in front of a car, causing a crash. It is a windshield perspective that has police implying that it was a cyclist's fault when a car runs him down, or that pedestrians are at fault for crossing the street. It is the windshield perspective that the current mayor of Toronto inherited from his predecessor. It is killing the city and many of its citizens who walk or ride bikes and are on the wrong side of the windshield.

Sarah Goodyear nailed it in the conclusion of her post:

I would ask something more radical of drivers: Would you look through your windshield and see the people using their feet to travel not as annoyances, not as objects of pity or contempt, not as figures in a video game, but as human beings? Could you take the extra moment, the extra breath, to let a person pass before you accelerate through a crosswalk? Could you drive the speed limit, at least in residential neighborhoods?

Could you recognize that sometimes, inevitably, the person on the other side of the windshield is you?