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This commentary by Andrea Garland appeared in the Roanoke Times on February 19, 2022. 

On the afternoon of Feb. 11, the driver of a 2014 Dodge Journey struck and killed a 39-year-old woman while she was riding her bike on U.S. 11 in Botetourt County.

Tabitha Thompson was riding along the marked U.S. Bicycle Route 76, which is a cross-country biking trail that passes through Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Along this section, U.S. 11 is a four-lane undivided highway with a posted speed limit of 40 mph.

This is at least the fifth life lost to traffic violence in 2022 in the Roanoke Valley, and four of them have been people walking or bicycling.

In addition to the tragedy of a life loss, we tend to do additional violence to those lost this way by how we talk about the cause of their death. The media reports immediately following Tabitha’s death used language that dehumanizes the victim and alleviates the driver from responsibility for their actions.

How local media reports incidents of traffic violence can have a profound effect on how the community views the roles of road design and the people involved. Here are quotes from three reports of Friday’s traffic fatality:

A Fincastle woman who was bicycling has died after an SUV struck her Friday afternoon.

Bicyclist killed in a crash in Botetourt County.

Dodge Journey was traveling south on Lee Highway when the vehicle struck a bicyclist who was also traveling south on Lee Highway.

Scholar Kelcie Ralphin outlines the shortcomings of these statements in the article, “To Save Lives, Let’s Cover Crashes Better,” highlighting how coverage blames the victim in three ways:

1. Reporters focus on the victim: “A Fincastle woman who was bicycling has died after an SUV struck her…” focuses on the victim and the action she was doing. Instead of honoring the victim, the effect is the opposite. This report implies the victim bears the responsibility for the crash.

2. Statements use passive voice: for instance, “Bicyclist was killed in a crash” implies that the crash just happened to the victim. No one caused it and no one is accountable.

3. The coverage blames the victim by using object-based language: “Dodge Journey was traveling south … when the vehicle struck a bicyclist …” The assumption here is that a vehicle hit the person as if it was autonomous and not under the control of a driver. Journalists should write instead that “a driver hit a bicyclist with his/her car.”

In addition to blaming the victim, these reports lack context, which treats incidents like this as isolated, as opposed to a consequence of a systematic problem involving driving behaviors and infrastructure.

For example, reporters should report roadway conditions and the size, weight, and speed of the vehicles involved. Reporters should avoid reporting on items that are not addressed in the law, such as whether someone was wearing a helmet or the color of clothing.
By referencing speeds, road conditions and current crash statistics, the report sheds light on a problem.

We urge reporters in our community to shift their reporting practices to reflect the facts and put the ownership of the incident on those who are accountable for it: the road design and the driver.

This tragic incident places Roanoke in the midst of a national discussion about how our language tends to dehumanize cyclists, pedestrians, and others who aren’t behind the wheel when they are hurt or killed on our roadways.

According to the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP), the media should avoid reporting on crashes involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vulnerable users in a way that places blame on the victim of traffic violence, and provides the following definitions relevant to this conversation:

Traffic violence is the harm people suffer due to an unforgiving system design. Traffic violence includes injuries ranging from minor to debilitating, as well as death.

Victim-blaming is blaming the victims of traffic violence for being harmed while participating in the transportation system. Victim-blaming often assumes the most vulnerable person involved caused the crash.

RIDE Solutions believes that everyone in our community should have safe and equitable access to all aspects of civic and social life and the recreational opportunities our region provides, regardless of how they access those resources. When tragedy strikes, using language that acknowledges the victims as human beings and recognizes that a person was controlling the automobile is the least we can do to affirm their right to travel safely on public roads.

Let’s not allow this violent traffic death of a person at the hands of a driver to be forgotten. Let’s advocate for safe road design, responsible drivers, and a region where pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles safely co-exist, where children and adults can travel freely without risk of harm, and where no loss of life in traffic is acceptable.

Garland, a native of Bogota, Colombia, relied on public transit, biking and walking as she grew up, inspiring her interest in the field of transportation. A 2007 Virginia Tech graduate with a master’s degree in civil engineering, she serves as director of RIDE Solutions, the transportation demand management program for Southwest Virginia.