A small difference

Two news items popped up almost simultaneously in my inbox recently. Each described a collision, but in a slightly different way. The first –

Woman taken to hospital after crash with cyclist at Cawsand

A LADY was taken to hospital after a man on a push bike crashed into her.

Police were called to the scene at Forder Hill, Cawsand at around 4.30pm this afternoon by ambulance staff.

A first responder – member of the community with advanced first aid training – was on the scene first followed by ambulance staff and police.

And the other –

No criminal action taken against death crash driver

A speeding driver has been told he must live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life after the tragic death of a popular roofer.

Cyclist Brent Jelley, 23, collided with a Ford Fiesta driven by Halstead resident Joshua Rumble, in Swan Street, Sible Hedingham on October 21, 2012.

Rewording the first article in the manner of the second, we get

A lady was taken to hospital after she collided with a push bike ridden by a man.

Which doesn’t sound like gibberish at all.

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17 Responses to A small difference

  1. Paul says:

    Not too sure what point you’re trying to make……………

    • Oh come on.
      Look where agency, and therefore blame, is attributed in these sentences.

      ‘a man on a push bike crashed into her’
      – Blamed agent is ‘a man on a push bike’.

      ‘Cyclist Brent Jelley, 23, collided with a Ford Fiesta’
      – Blamed agent is again ‘a cyclist’. This despite the fact that the preceding sentence admits the driver of the Ford was ‘speeding’. The article goes on to elaborate that the driver of the Ford was doing 40mph in a 30mph area. Also, it is implied that the coroner is the person saying that the driver ‘must live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life’, the implication of which is that this will be a form of punishment sufficient to offset, in some degree, a lack of prosecution. So the driver committed a prosecutable offence, which resulted in the death of a cyclist, for which the coroner attributes blame to the driver, but the newspaper reports this by attributing agency to the Cyclist:
      ‘Cyclist Brent Jelley, 23, collided with a Ford Fiesta’

      ‘Rewording the first article in the manner of the second, we get:
      A lady was taken to hospital after she collided with a push bike ridden by a man.’

      Or rewording the second article in the manner of the first, we get:
      A Cyclist died after a man in a car crashed into him.

      You do see that kind of headline – but mostly in the ‘cycling’ press. Why is there such a thing as the cycling press? Because of lines like: ‘Cyclist Brent Jelley, 23, collided with a Ford Fiesta’

    • michael says:

      As David Robjant says, you can’t really have that much trouble understanding the obvious?

      Its jumped out at me many times – its almost always described in the, frankly peculiar, form of ‘a cyclist collided with a car’. Invariably the cyclist is (a) given agency and (b) considered to be the active party. While the motorist is (a) erased and replaced by his/her car and (b) considered to be the passive party

      In most of the media the rule is “Motorists are never to be held responsible for anything”.

      The only thing that surprises me is that I’ve yet to see ‘a bollard collided with a car’.

    • Dan says:

      Generally, when these things are reported the cyclists manages (apparently by some supreme physical effort) to collide with the motor vehicle. Seems like there are a lot of cyclists with death wishes out there….?

  2. The second article also seems to have neglected to mention if the cyclist was wearing a helmet and hi-viz as we all know now that if they don’t wear them the driver is automagically absolved of any blame in a collision, regardless of their speed/alcohol consumption/mobile phone use/blindness/position of sun (delete as applicable)

  3. rdrf says:


    The point I take from this is that all too often in reports in the media, when a cyclist does something wrong, they are unequivocally the responsibly agent.


    When a motorist does something (which has far, far worse consequences) then the “fault” is something impersonal which is not associated with their responsibility – it is “a collision” which they just happen to be involved in, something “went out of control”, etc. etc.

    It is about letting motoring and motorists off the hook, and seeing cycling and cyclists as a problem, and it stinks.

    Well done this web site for pointing this garbage out.

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum

  4. D. says:

    Paul: its called satire.

    If you only read the mainstream media, you would think that motor vehicles are like some sort of barely domesticated animal, which will every so often rust run out of control… The person driving the car was just pulled along with it – they had no say over what their vehicle was doing, it just had a mind of its own and they didn’t have enough sugar cubes to calm it.

    The articles which don’t report it like this, report that the pedestrian/cyclist/horse/whatever just collided with the moving motor vehicle (like the old one about the man who was killed after throwing himself at a bullet at several hundred miles per hour).

  5. fonant says:

    It’s quite simple really if you follow the money. The motor industry fund the mainstream media to a large extent. Just look at all those expensive car adverts!

    No newspaper editor or TV executive with any sense is going to show motoring in a bad light, when they can so easily re-word the news to make a cyclist appear to be the offender. Cycling could, should, be a serious competitor to motoring for local trips, but our newspapers try hard to bias opinions so this doesn’t happen.

  6. platinum says:

    I complained to the BBC News website a few months ago when they reported about an elderly pedestrian who was killed by being run over by a lorry on a pedestrian crossing as “woman collided with lorry”! Needless to say, it was quickly edited.

  7. Michael,

    So you want a story about bollards hitting cars?

    Here is one with a fence post:
    August 1st 2013 Ely News “Five people injured as post smashes windscreen. Five people were injured in a crash at Soham yesterday after a wooden post smashed through the windscreen of the car they were in. The East of England Ambulance Service were alerted to …. a report of a vehicle colliding with a fence and stationary vehicles in a garden. [An ambulance spokesman said] ‘The driver of the vehicle … received a serious injury after a wooden fence post came through the windscreen striking him’.”

    and take a look at http://rdrf.org.uk/2012/02/11/blaming-bollards-and-trees-and-why-its-important/ for more in the same vein.

    • michael says:

      Yes, some of those come very close. On a lighter note, it also makes me think of that Jasper Carrot bit of reading out the details of (alleged real, quite likely fictional) Australian car insurance claims.

      “I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way” etc

  8. MCH says:

    While I agree that there is a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to the use of language as it relates to incidents involving cyclists to be fair to The Herald which carried the first of these stories, their credentials seem pretty good on the subject.
    A quick glance through the latest stories suggests that they are always pretty direct in their use of language. They have run a recent campaign highlighting poor driving on the school run and a story on poor cycle facilities putting cyclists in danger.

    • That might be true. I don’t think this would detract from the point made about the attribution of agency, and we don’t do justice to the issues in this area if we divide newspapers into those ‘sympathetic to cyclists’ and others. Comparative accuracy isn’t the same thing as accuracy.

      Besides attribution of agency, another relevant issue in reporting is, the selection of circumstances in which a newspaper story opens with deflationary factual statements, or ones which in connection with agency attribution also carry emotive force. A recent story in The Times (again, a newspaper which is for good reason thought of as having *relatively* good credentials in this area), opened with a blatantly inflammatory headline directing blame at ‘cyclists’ far in excess of anything justified by the facts of the story below (the online version of story then went through so many snap-edits that a link would no-longer illustrate the point, but Mark Treasure has a photo of the paper edition story, I believe).

      The Plymouth Herald has this story with a deflationary and factual headline and opening statement: “Cyclist hurt in crash with car in Union Street, Plymouth- A CYCLIST has been injured in a hit and run collision involving a car in Union Street, Plymouth.” Now this is non-inflammatory, and does not positively misattribute agency. On the other hand, as the rest of the story makes clear, it does not correctly attribute agency either. True, the cyclist was hurt ‘in a crash with a car’. But it turns out that it would also have been true to say that the cyclist was hurt ‘by a car that crashed into him’, which form of words this story strangely neglects. http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/Cyclist-hurt-crash-car-Union-Street-Plymouth/story-20421062-detail/story.html#ixzz2sS4miFeM

      • In this case, as others, a good reason for the flat language is that the matter might be sub-judice. The issue then is, whether that is a principle consistently applied.

      • MCH says:

        I’m intrigued by your comment “…we don’t do justice to the issues in this area if we divide newspapers into those ‘sympathetic to cyclists’ and others. Comparative accuracy isn’t the same thing as accuracy.”
        This sounds like you are suggesting that we should not acknowledge those newspapers that do the right thing while there are still others that do the wrong thing.
        In this instance, for example, The Herald only has control over what it publishes and should not be blamed if other news sources choose to report in a way that we feel is inappropriate. I could draw an analogy with the practise of blaming anyone who rides a bike with the actions of anyone else who rides a bike (There is no’s’, Jan 13).

        • MCH, the point I suspect I was attempting to make, without success, was this: isn’t there more than one dimension of ‘do the right thing’? I worried that you might be mixing up or associating various different dimensions of doing the right thing, when you wrote: “their credentials seem pretty good on the subject. A quick glance through the latest stories suggests that they are always pretty direct in their use of language. They have run a recent campaign highlighting poor driving on the school run and a story on poor cycle facilities putting cyclists in danger.”

          I wasn’t clear about this, but I worried that your use of “on the subject” took in all matters of cycling, so that a paper’s ‘credentials’ are a matter of what ‘side’ they are on, whether they are ‘sympathetic’ and so forth. That you treated the Herald’s stories about “poor driving on the school run and… poor cycle facilities” as supporting a defence of them on the question of language-use, did give some force to this worry. It might look like you think, if they talk sense about cyclepaths, that is evidence that there isn’t a problem with their reporting language.

          As I say, I wasn’t clear that this was what you thought, but do you see the worry? I suspect reporting language which selectively subtracts agency from incidents “involving” drivers and cars is *so* well ingrained that even newspapers one might count as ‘sympathetic’, in comparative terms, can nevertheless suffer from the problem. The issue isn’t as simple as: identify your most helpful allies. Of course, I do think one should congratulate good reporting.

          Does this explanation make my remarks seem less mad, or am I still digging a hole?

  9. michael says:

    On reflection, I think there is at least some logic in referring to a ‘cyclist’ vs a ‘car’. The rationale would be that the driver of the car doesn’t directly experience the impact – the body of the car does. Whereas for the cyclist they are as directly affected as their vehicle, for the most part.

    Its still annoying that this distinction has the side-effect of removing the driver from any responsibility in causing the collision, but it is true that they are not directly involved in the consequences of it, even if they are in the events leading to it.

    I guess its kind of related to the annoying ambiguity about the word ‘dangerous’. Our very language seems inclined to constantly push us towards victim-blaming – I wonder if its not coincidental – perhaps language evolves like that precisely because it suits the interests of the more powerful amongst any given language-using community?

    The business of always painting the cyclist as the active party (‘cyclist collided with…’) does seem like its down to pure bias, though. I think its a bias so deep that those writing these headlines aren’t even aware that that’s what they are doing. It always jumps out at me as being a strange way to describe the event – invariably conjuring up a mental picture of a careless speeding cyclist carelessly cycling straight into the side of a near-stationary car.

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