The BBC has defended its use of the term “accident” when describing road traffic collisions, with the broadcaster telling one listener that “we try to use language that ordinary people use, not the language contained in reports and documents”.
Radio 4 listener Toby Edwards complained to the BBC after an 11am news bulletin on 28 September announced that “figures show that 39 people died after road accidents involving the police between 2021 and 2022”.
Edwards asked the BBC’s Complaints Team if the broadcaster was “sure that all of these collisions were indeed accidents”, or whether “the term ‘accident’ was used mistakenly instead of saying ‘crashes’ or ‘collisions’?”
As Edwards noted in his letter to the BBC, the Media Guidelines for Reporting Road Collisions – coordinated by journalist and road.cc contributor Laura Laker alongside the Active Travel Academy at the University of Westminster, and launched in May 2021 – advises reporters to:
Avoid use of the word ‘accident’ until the facts of a collision are known. Most collisions are predictable and before an enquiry or court case the full facts are unlikely to be known. It is particularly important to avoid the word when someone has been charged with driving offences. Using ‘crash’ or ‘collision’ instead leaves the question of who or what is to blame open, pending further details.
At the time of the guidelines’ launch, Professor Rachel Aldred, the director of the Active Travel Academy, noted that “language matters, as it helps shape how we see and treat others”.
In a reply to Edward’s letter, received by the Radio 4 listener on 4 November, the BBC’s Complaints Team said: “We note your concerns about our use of the world ‘accident’ in the news report. We were referencing data released by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IPOC) that said: ’39 people died after road incidents involving the police between 2021 and 2022’.”
The response continued: “We’ve discussed your concerns with senior staff in BBC News and, although we take your point that ‘collision’ may have been a preferable word, our job is to write radio scripts that are relatable and understandable, and we try to use language that ordinary people use, not the language contained in reports and documents.
“‘Traffic accident’ is common parlance and we don’t feel here its use materially altered the accuracy of the story. The Road Collision Reporting Guidelines are guidelines, not rules.”
This response from the BBC complaints department justifying their use of the word “accident” instead of “collision” is appalling and irresponsible. @RoadPeace @allpartycycling pic.twitter.com/DSUWsTwrHy
— Töby Édwãrds (@IsSaddleThereIs) November 4, 2022
Sharing the response on Twitter, Edwards described the BBC’s attempt to ‘justify’ the use of the word ‘accident’ as “appalling and irresponsible”.
Criticising the broadcaster’s “very late response”, Edwards told road.cc: “Why aren’t they following the guidelines? If the BBC can’t do it, then it’s hopeless. It’s inaccurate to call all crashes ‘accidents’.”
DCS Andy Cox, head of crime at Lincolnshire Police and national lead for fatal collision investigations, also criticised the BBC’s response on Twitter, writing: “‘Accident’ implies it was unavoidable, just one of those things, bad luck. Instead, many fatal ‘crashes’ occur because a driver made a choice to be dangerous or reckless, and to selfishly break the law.
“Words matter, and can help change an embedded mindset and save lives.”
Another Twitter user pointed out that, the day after Edwards complained about the Radio 4 news bulletin, the Department for Transport agreed, following a consultation, to change the terminology used in its publications and data to refer to collisions, rather than accidents.
“If the DfT can change, why can’t you BBC? You should be taking the lead on following the guidelines, not refusing to report responsibly,” the user tweeted.
Radio 4’s decision to ignore the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines isn’t the first time that the station has been criticised for its use of language by cycling campaigners.
In April 2021, the BBC issued a correction after Radio 4 Today programme host Nick Robinson inaccurately claimed that “you cannot use your car” in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.
Robinson’s comment received a number of complaints, including one from the Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, who is an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling and Walking.
Greenwood, the MP for Nottingham South, wrote to the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards David Jordan to flag the presenter’s comment as a “falsehood,” adding, “the least we can expect from a national broadcaster is a basic grasp of the facts.”
This week’s latest backlash comes hot on the heels of the mixed reception within the cycling community afforded to the broadcaster’s recent Panorama programme ‘Road Rage: Cars v Bikes’.
Some cycling campaigners, including the Guardian’s Peter Walker and road.cc’s Simon MacMichael, concluded that the investigation was “good in parts” and effectively highlighted the vulnerability of people on bikes and the dangers posed by motorists.
However, the programme was heavily criticised for its use of questionable statistics – the ‘finding’ that a third of drivers believe that cyclists shouldn’t be on the road (a claim that garnered several tabloid headlines) was based on an open-ended online poll – and the presence of divisive interviewees such as Rod Liddle (a controversial voice that was later repeated in subsequent BBC news bulletins on the subject this week).
With the BBC’s use of language under scrutiny, Walker also questioned the divisive nature of the programme’s title. “There’s this weird compulsion to make everything about cycling into a battle. As others have said, it’s less a battle than a massacre,” the journalist tweeted.
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.