Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Words Matter!

"It is language that provides the key tool for communicating prejudice." *Language and Stereotyping*

California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow heralded the new year and the laws that went into effect on January 1, 2010 by announcing “The new laws are designed to make our roadways a safe place for motorists," and in doing so, gave witness to the subtle and insidious culture of auto-centric bias that cyclists claim is top-down and rotten to the core. Did he slip by saying "a safe place for motorists" or did he offer a truthful bias by ignoring pedestrians and cyclists, both of whom also deserve to use our streets with the support of the law and a top-down commitment to make them safer for all modes.

Transportation professionals at all levels and in all expressions can recite the "same rules, same rights" mantra in meetings and in speeches and in seminars and in classes but when the rubber meets the road, for all of the talk, the real truth is that our leadership echoes the sentiments of those who dominate the streets of our communities, "Streets are for motorists!

The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name. Chinese Proverb

The California Peace Officers Legal Sourcebook, which is produced by the CA Attorney General's office, has a statement from the Attorney General in the introduction that demonstrates a simple yet common mistake, and conveniently ignores pedestrians and cyclists. "California has one of the world's most complex driving environments. The state's 16 million drivers and 20 million vehicles far exceed the total of any other state and most nations. Most traffic law is contained in the Vehicle Code, an accumulation of laws, first enacted in 1905, regulating the use of motor vehicles." A subtle mistake, but a mistake nonetheless, and one that perpetuates the auto-centric paradigm.

As long as the CA Attorney General makes the mistake of equating "traffic" law with law that regulates "motor vehicles," cyclists and pedestrians will have an uphill battle as they attack the mythology that denies cyclists and pedestrians their place in the "traffic" on the streets of our communities.

"Changing how the public labels categories changes the associations those labels invoke in people's minds, which in turn changes their affective attitudes toward what is being described." David Green, Hofstra University

Two recent hit-and-run incidents in our community stirred immediate responses from the community, both of them demonstrating a desensitized bias to the number one threat to public safety in Los Angeles, the motorist.

A few days after Christmas, a driver struck 14-year-old Flor Portillo and her 3-year-old niece as they crossed Main Street near 43rd Street, throwing them about 40 feet. The motorist, described onaly as a woman, did not stop to help the girls, who were both seriously hurt and were rushed to the hospital. Both girls survived the accident.

The incident, horrific and supported by a surveillance video that shows the two girls crossing the street, hit by the car and left where they landed, was referred to by ABC7 as an "accident" and this is the soft desensitization process that allows us as a community to accept unacceptable behavior. Who at ABC7 is able to perform forensic research and make the determination that the collision was an accident. It may have very well been an accident, but that is a determination for professionals. As for the news gatherers, it was a crime scene and it should not be dismissed as an "accident." (Twitter -

Last week, a driver struck Ed Magos as he rode his bike to work in downtown Los Angeles. Ed was in the #2 lane and was hit at significant speed with no warning such as squealing brakes or horn, just suddenly hit from behind and thrown through the air. The motorist stopped, Ed called for help saying "Call 911, I can't move!" The motorist got back in her Porche, made a u-turn and left the scene. She later turned herself in to the LAPD at the Rampart Station.

The incident, again horrific and supported by a picture of Ed immobilized on a gurney being transported by paramedics to the hospital, was all the more shocking because of the callous and inhumane behavior of the motorist. What kind of human hits another human and leaves them lying on the street crying for help? Even more shocking is the fact that Sgt. Sandor of Central Traffic referred to the incident as a "traffic accident" long before the motorist had turned herself in and long before he had any information at all on the hit-and-run collision. Adding insult to injury, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition sent out their regular email bulletin with "Hit and Run Accident" in the headline. Accident? Says who?

Words Matter!

We're people. We're not cars, we're not bikes and we're not shoes. We're people. Motorists and cyclists and pedestrians must be addressed as people with rights and responsibilities and at all turns, we must keep in mind, we're people. When motorists run over other people, it is a tragedy. Dismissing it as an "accident" without any information demonstrates a willingness to desensitize tragedy. Absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable, especially from professionals.

The reporters at ABC7, the advocates at the LACBC, and the men and women of the LAPD all need to pay close attention to the words they use. They affect people and they matter.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't believe in traffic accidents. There may be a very small percentage of collisions in which some inadvertent incident causes one or more vehicles to collide with some other person or object. But the overwhelming majority of collisions would not occur unless someone had broken a traffic law, or otherwise been careless or distracted behind the wheel.

Calling it an accident absolves the parties involved of their responsibility to use the roads in a safe, alert and careful manner. Which is why I try never to use the word. Unless I'm somehow responsible, of course.

MU said...

Stephen - very well written and a very important, but subtle and often overlooked point. Thank you.

On the "accident" language. Accident means unintentional even if caused through negligence. The word itself does not absolve the perpetrator of responsibility though it often does in the legal system. But you only have to look at how often the Dr. Thompson case was referred to as an 'accident' to see a much more egregious case of what Stephen is referring to.