The fatal car crash is, unfortunately, an all-too-familiar staple of local journalism. Each of us can summon a grim collage of tragedy: the flashing lights; the fluttering yellow tape on the roadside; the “starburst” windshield; the phrase “he was too young,” or “our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
There is no denying this can make for arresting and poignant viewing or reading. And, unlike sensational reports of deaths that far outweigh their actual occurrence (e.g., in the months leading up to the attacks of 9/11, there was a rash of shark-attack stories, though we were soon to learn that our greatest threat that season did not come from the sea), the frequency of the coverage seems justified: traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people ages one through thirty-four.
But to people who try to reduce the number of crashes, there is often something missing from the picture: context. “I see it every month where I live,” says Deborah Girasek, a director in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Maryland. “A teenager dies in a crash, and the media coverage consists of that teenager’s friends putting flowers and teddy bears on the side of the road. You can go to a different town and it’s the same story. It’s formulaic, and it’s an easy story to write.”
While Girasek acknowledges that this in itself may not be a bad thing—“I understand that the person who died was a human being, and it’s certainly a very tragic loss for the community”—she worries about what is often absent from the stories, namely a sense of how accidents might have been prevented. “For instance, I never hear any discussion, when a teen dies, of the graduated licensing law in that state,” she says. “If they have the type where they weren’t supposed to be with other teens, were they?” (So-called GDLs, which restrict the access young drivers have to driving, are arguably the only successful intervention against teenage traffic deaths.) Further, Girasek asks, what were the road conditions? The type of car involved? At what speed was it traveling?
The investigation of vehicle crashes is a notoriously difficult procedure, and for a general-assignment reporter in the chaos of a crash scene, getting basic details (name, age, etc.) is challenging enough. And, as Girasek notes, “journalists don’t have the same job that I do—their job is not to reduce injuries.” Indeed, there is a kind of tension between journalism and the epidemiological work of reducing car crashes. Fatal car crashes are, at once, an individual human tragedy and an epidemic (there were 41,059 traffic-related fatalities in 2007, the last year for which complete data is available). Journalists instinctively look for the compelling individual story, as in, say, the cruel, seemingly random death of a much-loved community figure in an “accident.” Epidemiologists, meanwhile, prefer the word “crash” to “accident” for its connotation that many of these events are preventable, and they look for data and patterns—in essence they try to reduce the individuality of a crash. To make matters worse, when journalists do try to emphasize the larger patterns, they sometimes get it wrong. I have noticed, for example, stories that will mention that “about 13,000 people are killed by drunk drivers annually”; given that at least half of these involve single-vehicle (and single-occupant) crashes, this is incorrect at best, and at worst may lead a reader to surmise the biggest threat is other drivers.
Even if journalists aren’t public-health professionals, Girasek argues that presenting basic information, such as how many people involved in the crash were wearing restraints, would help illustrate the preventive nature of many traffic fatalities. She points, as an example, to what must be the most famous fatal car crash of the twentieth century: the deaths in 1997 of Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul. “The only person who survived that crash [bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones] was the person wearing the seatbelt,” Girasek says. “That person wasn’t even in the safest seat. And yet that’s the person that survived. That never got covered.” (Interestingly, only late last year in the UK was the fact that Diana wasn’t wearing a seatbelt highlighted, in a public-service campaign by the road safety ministry, which speaks to the delicateness of emphasizing safety messages in the face of grief.)