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.)
While in certain ways, such as reporting whether alcohol was a factor, the coverage of car crashes has become better at emphasizing contextual details, a number of recent media studies suggest there’s still much relevant information that is left unaddressed. A study by Colorado State University researchers Monica Rosales and Lorann Stallones, published in the Journal of Safety Research, looked at 473 newspaper articles from across the U.S. from 1999 to 2002. The majority of stories used what the researchers called “episodic framing,” emphasizing the basic details of the crash—who, where, etc.—in essence treating the crash as an isolated event. Other kinds of details, the sort that are implicated in higher risk of crash or injury, were underreported. Only 1.3 percent of the stories surveyed, for example, included information about the weather; the speed limit, too, was mentioned in only 1.3 percent of the stories (and estimated travel speed was not mentioned for 83 percent of all vehicles involved in the stories); whether seatbelts were used went unreported for nearly 78 percent of the people mentioned in the stories; and even a basic detail, like the time of day of the crash, went unmentioned in nearly half the stories.
Unlike other public-health issues, the problem in the coverage of car crashes is not so much underreporting as how the stories are reported—quality versus quantity. Indeed, one estimate has found that car crashes are reported 12.8 more times than what might be expected based on the actual rate of death (Girasek notes one Canadian study that found people actually overestimated the number of people dying on the roads every year).
The focus on teen drivers, similarly, is disproportionate to their actual statistical involvement in crashes. Also overemphasized, meanwhile, are things like vehicle recalls—despite a few high-profile cases, faulty vehicles account for a small percentage of crashes every year—as well as the traditional holiday-driving safety warnings. While it is true that fatalities peak during periods like the July 4 weekend, research has shown the fatality rate for impaired drivers during that weekend—when adjusted for the higher number of drivers—is only marginally higher than it is for a typical weekend. On the other hand, much less coverage goes to traffic-related injuries broadly—a category that includes pedestrians hit by cars as well as nonfatal car accidents—of which there are nearly three million a year in the U.S. Such context, too, is often beyond the reach of crash-scene reporting, and whether for lack of resources or interest, the subsequent consequences of a crash do not receive much follow-up reporting.