Monday 24 November 2014

A 1980 crash, a rushed hearing - and why paradigms keep trumping facts

It was an experience in April 1980 – when I was ten years old – that first forced me to confront people’s thinking and expectations about road safety. I’d left my primary school in Glasgow without my homework and, on arrival at the flat across the road where I went after school, remembered and turned around. But, as I crossed back, a car that had come round a bend in the road hit me, and threw me up in the air. I wasn’t badly hurt when I landed but the impact must have been significant. One of my shoes landed in the back garden of the substantial house on the other side of the street.

Over the next few days, I encountered the complexities of people’s reactions. There was, of course, sympathy, as one would hope a 10-year-old would receive under such circumstances. But there was also a pursed-lip terseness to some adults’ solicitousness. They clearly regarded the whole thing as the inevitable outcome of my careless crossing of the street. Their view wasn’t, I think, based on the crash’s circumstances but on their expectations of how such things worked. Something in their head – a paradigm – told them that if I’d been hit it must have been my own silly fault.
The street where the Invisible Visible Man - then the Invisible
Visible Boy - was hit by a car 34 years ago. Adults sucked their
teeth at his negligence. But the streetscape changes hint
at the wider cause. (c) Google Streetview

My mind’s returned to that childhood experience this week as I’ve been pondering how ordinary people, the police and news reporters respond to road crashes far more serious than mine. Many of these events, it seems to me, are filed just as quickly as my crash was into convenient, easy-to-understand categories. Police officers, I suspect, start off with a similar paradigm to the one I faced 34 years ago – that pedestrians’ and cyclists’ mistakes, not cautious, respectable motorists, tend to cause crashes. Reporters overseen by under-pressure news editors all too easily fit events for their readers into even simpler, more misleading constructs.

One recently-publicised case shows such paradigms’ ability to overpower the truth. New York news outlets in October last year cited police sources as saying Allison Liao, a three-year-old, had “broken away” from her grandmother in a crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, before Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha drove over her in his SUV. The phrase “broke away” conjures up images from road-safety films of a child’s heedless breaking away from a parent’s grasp. It suggests a freak event – or negligence on the part of the grandmother or little girl – that Abu-Zayedeha could not have been expected to anticipate. The phrase is such a cliché that it ought, in retrospect, to have alerted readers that it was based on false assumptions.

Footage from another vehicle’s dashboard camera showed Abu-Zayedeha in fact simply drove his vehicle through the crosswalk oblivious to the presence of Allison and her grandmother, who had right of way and were holding each other’s hands. The truth, however, contains none of the satisfying closure of the “broke away” version, which suggests the event is simply a sad, unavoidable tragedy. There’s nothing to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about why such a horror should happen – no obvious sign of the driver’s using his telephone or acting deliberately. There isn’t an easy narrative to fit the many pointless, avoidable crashes that arise from drivers’ impatience and inattention while carrying out simple manoeuvres.

It's a long shot - but this NYPD driver
may not spend a lot of time questioning
the paradigms behind his thinking
about street safety.
Yet the recognition that the minds of all involved – the police, reporters and drivers – are falling in line with paradigms suggests a route towards achieving better understanding of such events. It’s vital, it seems to me, that road safety advocates start countering misleading stories about crashes’ causes still more quickly and aggressively than they do at present. Only when unspoken assumptions are spoken and revealed for myths will new, more accurate paradigms emerge. It’s imperative to recognise that narratives about crashes are built around pre-existing templates, rather than constructed afresh for the facts of each incident.

A change in the narratives might encourage police and prosecutors to act – and discourage future poor behaviour. Abu-Zayedeha has faced no criminal charges for his extreme negligence. Even the two traffic violations he faced were dismissed, after a hearing before a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing that Radio WNYC last week revealed lasted just 47 seconds.

In my own crash, I remember for sure that the school crossing guard – “lollipop lady,” in British parlance – had left by the time I arrived. I also recall letting pass a car heading in the other direction from the one that hit me. I’ve little idea why I then missed the one coming from my right – but there was a slight bend in the road and cars on either side. I used to tell myself that the driver – a driving instructor, on his way to a lesson – was speeding.  But I think I’d have been more seriously injured if the vehicle had been going faster than the 30mph speed limit.

The truth of the crash is probably that the road, with its 30mph speed limit, no permanent crossing and parked cars obscuring the view, was simply a hostile environment that was intolerant of an incautious driver and my momentary lapse. A check on Google Streetview reveals that the site now has a raised pedestrian crossing. Many of the parking spaces that obscured mine and the driver’s view of each other have been taken out. There’s a 20mph speed limit around school times. Those all seem to me like retrospective recognition that the tooth-sucking adults 34 years ago were putting too simplistic a construction on events.

But humans take minutes or hours, rather than decades, to reach their conclusions on many crashes’ causes. The simple paradigms in many people’s heads keep pushing them, it seems to me, towards some strikingly misleading conclusions in that period.
The foot of the Manhattan Bridge bike lane, near where
Matthew Brenner was hit: a confusing place, but not one
where people deliberately take suicidal risks.
In one recent case, for example, the New York Police Department announced shortly after Matthew Brenner, a cyclist, was fatally injured in a crash near the Manhattan Bridge that he had been cycling against the traffic down Sands St – a street supplied with one of the city’s best segregated bike lanes – when hit. The explanation made sense only if one always frames such incidents in a mental construct that says cyclists regularly take suicidal risks with their own safety.

I expressed scepticism in the comments below an online story about the narrative, only to be criticised by other commenters to the point of abuse. Further investigation and video have nevertheless suggested Brenner – who had previously worked as a cycle courier in Washington, DC - appeared confused about how to reach one of the area’s bike lanes and was hit by two separate vehicles. The simplistic early version was indeed based on invalid, improbable assumptions.

Another more recent tragedy shows how the neat paradigms in police officers’ heads distort their efforts to assign culpability for crashes. On November 15, a man driving an F150 pick-up truck with a raised chassis and illegally tinted windows killed Jenna Daniels, a 15-year-old jogger, in a crosswalk on Staten Island. The police almost immediately told reporters that they were blaming the crash on Daniels’ crossing the street outside the marked crosswalk at the site. They had ticketed the driver for having illegally tinted windows, they said, but these played no role in the crash.
An F150 at the Detroit auto show: imagine a raised chassis
and tinted windows - and ask yourself if you'd assume such
a vehicle's design played no role in a fatal crash.

It takes extraordinarily powerful mental biases to reach those conclusions based on the available facts. The poor young woman, after all, was hit at least close to a crosswalk, by a driver whose vision must have been impaired not only by his vehicle’s height and size but by an illegal window tint. Only a very strong urge to blame pedestrians for crashes and exonerate drivers could immediately exculpate the windows and the driver.

Yet, as a newspaper reporter with more than two decades’ experience, my concern about the paradigms at work doesn’t stop with the police. I note their effect just as strongly in the work of journalists. The failure of reporters to interrogate their police sources about their improbable versions of events has certainly made life easier for the district attorneys, police officers and others who want to go with the easy version of events.

It’s perhaps less obvious to a non-reporter how those stories must reflect priorities coming from elsewhere in the news organisation. It’s clear to me, for example, that news editors regard many stories about traffic crashes as a minor matter, worthy of only a brief story. It’s hardly surprising that the stories often feel rushed and only partially researched. Reporters are inevitably under pressure to write such stories quickly and move on to the next. It’s impossible by its nature to contact a dead victim or one who’s in a coma to see if he or she agrees with a biased police investigator’s account.

A pedestrian tries to cross Varick Street, in Manhattan's
West Village. The intersection's badly designed and cars
behave badly around it. But, if something happens to him,
you can be fairly sure what the paradigm in the police's heads
will be telling them about whose fault it was.
It will be even less apparent to anyone who’s never worked in news how hard it can be to write a story that doesn’t fit a readily-understood paradigm. Even the shortest story needs some kind of narrative if it is to satisfy readers’ curiosity. It’s far easier from a news editor’s point of view to frame a story like Allison’s death as an inexplicable, unpreventable tragedy than to try to tie up the loose ends of the events in question.

The “inexplicable tragedy” version of road crashes also has the significant advantage – especially in England and Wales, which have appallingly restrictive defamation laws – that it tends to blame a dead or unconscious victim. A dead person can’t sue a newspaper. A driver accused of negligence certainly can.

That tendency to pick conveniently on the dead to simplify the consequences of their deaths for those still alive is, incidentally, one of the coldest, most cynical parts of the whole process.

It's far harder, however, to kill off a misleading paradigm than it is to kill a vulnerable road user. The paradigms in news editors’ heads were some of the last holdouts of last century’s outmoded ideas on sexual identify, domestic violence and a host of other issues. The paradigms about how to write about race, crime, immigration and a swathe of other issues continue to distort reporting. It is hardly surprising that few reporters currently care enough or are well-informed enough to counter their editors’ entrenched views of “common sense” views of traffic issues.

The paradigms in police officers' heads, meanwhile, can literally kill people. It's hard to imagine that, if Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, hadn't had fixed views about the behaviour of his town's black people, he wouldn't have felt it necessary to kill unarmed Michael Brown in August. It's hard to imagine that police views about the likely behaviour of people in Brooklyn's Pink Houses didn't contribute to a police officer's shooting of Akai Gurley, an entirely innocent young man, last week in East New York.

54th St & 8th Avenue, Midtown Manhattan:
it's a chaotic environment - yet I never doubted
when I rode it daily I'd get no sympathy from
the police if a driver ran into me
Yet none of this is intended as a counsel of despair. Campaigners against domestic violence, drunk driving and countless other social scourges have changed the media narrative through sheer persistence. Street safety activist groups can adopt similar tactics, raising quickly after every crash the legitimate questions that police and news organisations currently fail to raise. The questions need not even be very specific to the individual incidents. The stories about Matthew Brenner’s fate and Jenna Daniels’ death would both have been improved by a simple reminder that research shows motorists - not the victims - cause most crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians in New York.

It is likely, no doubt, to be an uncomfortable business for activists used to running positive, non-confrontational campaigns to start taking such a stance. The resources to find people willing to put in the hard work will be hard to find. There could easily be resistance from police, media organisations and those responsible for causing crashes.

But substantial changes can take place. After all, as I sat on the kerb of that road in Glasgow waiting for an ambulance and wondering where my shoe was, nobody queried why a road past a school lacked a crossing, good sightlines or a lower speed limit. No-one now, I fancy, would tolerate the then-conditions on that road. If, heaven forbid, there are still crashes as horrendous as the one that devastated Allison Liao’s family three decades hence, the reporting should be just as different.

There are, goodness knows, multiple problems with rich-world countries' justice systems, societies and the way people write about them. But the conditions that led first to Allison’s death, then its misreporting then its mishandling by the legal system are undoubtedly among them. They must be recognised as lazy, complacent, obscene assumptions that obscure the truth of appalling tragedies.


  1. "The stories ... would ... have been improved by a simple reminder that research shows motorists - not the victims victims - cause most crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians"

    Would that interfere with a defendants right to a fair trial?

    Realise this is a moot point as it seems the majority of cases in NY don't get made.

    In the UK the journalistic euphemism to excuse drivers is "collided with" to the extent that it was reported recently that a tree collided with a car.

    1. I ran across a similarly odd bit of phraseology in the description of a local incident in which a car struck the wall of a restaurant. The account ended with the sentence "The vehicle fled the scene."

    2. There are two things going on here, I think. In the UK, there's both the worry about defamation law and contempt of court if someone's under arrest. But there's also the blunt-force stupidity of much of the reporting on these things.

      That said, I often think about the vehicles around me in traffic as cars, not people driving cars. I have occasionally been reprimanded by readers for assigning too much agency to the vehicles. So, while I wouldn't say a car had fled the scene, I might stray into some of these areas.

      All the best,


  2. Matthew,
    Thank you for your comment. You're quite right that the position in the UK on this regard is entirely different because of the Contempt of Court Act, albeit Twitter and Facebook are undermining that august legislation. The US priorities free speech over the right to a trial unsullied by previous media comment.
    All the Best,

  3. Unfortunately, I often see people on bikes "regularly take suicidal risks with their own safety." Ditto for people in cars. Unfortunately, the "mainstream" view is from behind a windshield and so people on bikes are blamed, despite their negligible risk to others (unlike the vehicles of the mainstream view).

    1. Steve,

      I see people taking risks on a bike that I wouldn't take myself. But I doubted from the start that anyone would ride down Sands St as the police assumed and, when video evidence emerged, it turns out I was right.

      Cyclists and pedestrians are to blame for some crashes with cars (as, I suppose, I was as a 10-year-old). But studies continue to lay the blame for most crashes on drivers - which, given how cut off a driver is and what the risks to vulnerable road users are, isn't that surprising.

      All the best,


  4. Excellent post, Invisible. Had you seen this recently on the Beyond The Kerb blog?
    Also the article linked to within it making the same point from a reporter's point of view.

    1. Rebecca,

      Thank you. That is a good piece. As I suggest in my piece, I think the worry about defamation is a peculiarly British one, on account of England's strict libel laws. In the US, plenty of news stories ascribe agency to vehicles, which is a result of the kind of mistaken thinking I describe here.

      All the best,


    2. Try translating the "ascribe agency to vehicles" to other forms of criminal activity. For example, consider this report of a bank robbery:

      "At 2:30 PM a 9mm Browning Hi-Power pistol entered the bank and shot a bank teller, who was not wearing a bullet-proof vest."

      Isn't that a word-for-word translation of so many news reports of car drivers crushing and killing people? I even included the usual victim-blaming.

  5. In a sense, it's not surprising that we see cars/vans/lorries as the agents. They far surpass their occupants in size, mass and power, it's just that (Googlised future aside) they aren't in control of themselves. Think of a Dalek and you generally aren't thinking first of the small tentacled green thing inside it.

  6. The focus with cars and car driver is on the vehicle and nothing else, the human being on the other side of the windscreen is an object, a potential dent increase in insurance premium. It's sad but is the reality. "What is in my way?" and "how can I avoid the thing with the least possible damage to my vehicle?" are the priorities, the main path that the brain follows when dealing with anything that crosses the path. Nothing ca change this. Only a general, world wide paradigm shift. Cars are like weapons.


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