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“Typical cyclists”: Motorists and cyclists treated differently in newspaper reports of fatal road collisions, new study finds

Researchers, based at the University of Westminster, found that media reports tend to erase driver agency “in all but exceptional cases”

A recent academic study from the University of Westminster has found that car drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are depicted differently in newspaper reports of road traffic collisions.

The study, entitled ‘Rogue drivers, typical cyclists, and tragic pedestrians’ and published in the scholarly journal Mobilities last month, analysed how fatal road collisions were reported in stories in the Evening Standard between 2012 and 2019.

Professor Rachel Aldred and Dr David Fevyer, both based at Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, researched stories related to three types of collision: when a cyclist dies in a collision with a car or van, when a pedestrian dies in a collision with a car or van, and when a pedestrian dies in a collision with a bicycle.

The researchers examined how these articles portrayed the incidents and the people involved in them – and in doing so, were able to identify “distinct discourses” around each type of road user.

Aligning with the findings of previous similar studies – and as pointed out on numerous occasions by our readers – the researchers found that car drivers were frequently given “low prominence” in reports, and were often referred to indirectly through references to their cars (for example, ‘A man in his 30s died last night after being hit by a car’).

This changes, however, when drivers are associated with what could be regarded as “exceptional behaviour”. For instance, a ‘hit-and-run driver’ will be referred to as directly involved in an incident and given higher prominence in reports because they can be identified as “rogue drivers”, untypical of most other motorists.

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Professor Aldred and Dr Fevyer found that cyclists, on the other hand, were always referred to “directly and prominently” in the eight years-worth of articles examined, regardless of their role in the collision and whether they were the victim or the surviving party.

According to the study, reporting patterns tend to “erase driver agency in all but exceptional cases”, while at the same time depicting the involvement of cyclists in collisions as more typical.

Cyclists’ deaths are also frequently linked to other recent cycling fatalities, but the researchers observed that there is often little attempt to alert the reader to the common factors behind these collisions, such as poor infrastructure.

Cycling is thus viewed as the only common link between fatalities which implies, according to the authors, that cyclists’ deaths are simply viewed as a typical and expected outcome of cycling.

By contrast, pedestrian deaths on the roads, which greatly outnumber those of cyclists, are treated as individual tragedies with no reference as to how often they happen or what may cause them.

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“These findings contribute to an emerging area of research concerned with how media reporting shapes public understanding and discussion around road safety,” said Dr Fevyer.

“The differences we identified between the portrayal of different road users highlights some of the ways in which inequalities between them are reinforced.

“These findings are important in light of recent research conducted elsewhere, which has suggested links between how cyclist and pedestrian deaths are framed, and how readers interpret blame and the need for action to prevent future such deaths.

“By framing pedestrian deaths as isolated tragedies and cyclist deaths as typical outcomes of cycling, current reporting patterns direct attention away from the sources of danger for both types of user.

“This area of research can help to inform improvements in reporting practices and ultimately lead to better public understanding of how road danger can be addressed.”

In May 2021, the Active Travel Academy, along with journalist and contributor Laura Laker, published a set of guidelines for reporting road traffic collisions, aimed at the UK media. 

The guidelines encourage media, among other things, to avoid using the word “accident” – with “crash” or “collision” not carrying the same association with chance – and to acknowledge the role of motorists, rather than simply referring to cars.

Ryan joined as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.

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