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Stop Blaming The Victims of Bad Road Design and Unsafe Driving 

Humboldt County has a serious pedestrian safety problem. In 2022 alone, drivers in the county hit and killed eight people who were walking or rolling — and hit and injured 40 more. Of the 58 counties in California, the state Office of Traffic Safety currently ranks Humboldt as the second worst for pedestrian injuries and deaths.

When these crashes are mapped, it quickly becomes clear that many of them — particularly the most severe incidents — are happening in the same places over and over. Clearly these are not random tragedies. The risk of pedestrians being hurt or killed is particularly high on certain streets and roads, especially the places where state highways and other major roads cut through our cities and towns. But if you got all your information from law enforcement statements and media coverage, you'd probably think each collision was an isolated event caused by an irresponsible pedestrian.

In the early morning of Tuesday, Sept. 12, Ashley Hipol was walking home along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 101 in Fortuna, in an area where the freeway is essentially the only way to get from north to south. A driver swerved, hit her and drove on without stopping. Both of Ashley's legs were injured, and her pelvis shattered.

Due to Ashley's traumatic injuries, she was unable to make a statement to California Highway Patrol officers investigating the crash that day. But the CHP put out a statement anyway, claiming that Ashley had been "walking or lying" in the right lane of the highway before being hit, and that the unidentified hit-and-run driver — who had committed a felony by hitting a person and failing to stop — "may not have been aware that Ms. Hipol was struck."

In other words, despite an almost complete lack of information about the incident at the time, CHP preemptively blamed the victim and exonerated the driver. Various local media outlets carried the story, predictably triggering online commenters to engage in cruel attacks and baseless speculation about Ashley and her supposed actions before the crash.

Ashley's story carries echoes of another local crash, this one on Feb. 16, 2021. On that day, a driver hit a 45-year-old man who was crossing Fifth Street in Eureka on foot. The victim was left in critical condition and unable to make a statement. But the Eureka Police Department issued an initial press release stating that "the pedestrian suddenly stepped into the roadway into the path of the oncoming vehicle" and praising the driver who hit him as "cooperative throughout the investigation."

Two days later, EPD was forced to recant after reviewing surveillance video of the crash that showed the victim had been using a marked crosswalk and was almost all the way across the street when hit by the driver. Unsurprisingly, the driver's initial statements to police had not reflected reality. But the officers had apparently taken the driver's account at face value, despite the circumstances.

Usually when a driver hits a pedestrian and it makes the news, the pedestrian is either critically injured or already dead. That is the tragically predictable result when a large, high-speed vehicle crashes into an unprotected person. For police and reporters, this means that initial characterizations of these crashes tend to rely only on the account of the driver, and sometimes only on police officers' speculation. These unverified accounts typically receive uncritical media coverage and, in turn, shape public perceptions of traffic safety.

The only reason we know the true story about Hipol is that she survived the crash, and has been making public statements online and to reporters in an effort to correct the record. The only reason we know the truth about what happened in February of 2021 is that there was video footage of the crash. But even in these cases, as more facts emerged, there was minimal follow-up coverage to correct the biased and inaccurate initial reporting. Even when a pedestrian — or a video tape — survives to tell the real story, most local news consumers will never see or hear them.

There is lasting damage done by victim-blaming police statements, and by the failure of local media to put those statements in context. Additional emotional trauma is inflicted on victims and families who are already experiencing traumatic, life-changing events. These statements also create and reinforce a public narrative that makes it harder to prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening again.

Studies have shown media coverage of vehicle-pedestrian crashes is almost always suffused with victim-blaming biases, ranging from the blatantly obvious ("suddenly stepped into the roadway") to more subtle but still impactful grammatical and word choices. Coverage also consistently frames these collisions as isolated incidents, ignoring the fact that they keep happening, day after day, year after year, mostly in the same locations. Often, as in the local cases described above, this is partly a result of quoting or simply re-publishing law enforcement statements that reflect these same biases.

The result of this coverage, researchers have found, is not only more victim-blaming in each case, but also reduced public support for broad changes that can actually reduce future injuries and deaths. Decades of data show that by far the most effective way to prevent serious crashes is to redesign roads and provide safe facilities for all users. But when crashes are falsely framed as isolated incidents resulting from individual choices, news consumers become less supportive of safe street design. And when police and the media blame the victim's choices in particular, government agencies and the motoring public are relieved of any responsibility for changing the status quo.

These are not minor effects. One study found that simply removing a few common biases from news articles about vehicle-pedestrian crashes caused 30 percent fewer readers to blame the victim. Putting those crashes in a broader context, meanwhile, increased support for safer street design by 8 percent — just from reading a single article. Less biased public reporting by both law enforcement and the media — and consistently providing relevant contextual information about historical collision patterns, street design and available pedestrian facilities — could mean the difference between public opposition to evidence-based street safety improvements and widespread support.

Some may object that police officers and reporters are just doing their jobs, and that it's not their responsibility to build public support for one kind of policy or another. That's true. But as we've seen, today's standard law enforcement statements and media reports about vehicle-pedestrian crashes are not objective, factual or complete. The pervasive bias, speculation, victim-blaming and disregard of broader context are all clear signs that something needs to change.

Words have consequences. In the case of police officers and reporters covering vehicle-pedestrian crashes, words can either reinforce victim-blaming attitudes that contribute to the unending stream of tragedies, or they can change minds and generate understanding and support for evidence-based safety improvements. We need to stop blaming victims and start saving lives.

Colin Fiske (he/him) is the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities, a non-profit organization advocating for safe and sustainable transportation. He lives in Arcata.

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Colin Fiske

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