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.

Journalists are obviously under pressure, now more than ever, to report news that people will pay attention to, and in the necessary triage of the newsroom the most dramatic events (e.g., high-speed police pursuits) will always subsume the less dramatic. As Girasek notes, a story in which a young drunk driver is killed in a single-car crash, for example, will get much less attention than a case in which one driver is killed by another, who survived. “If the person they can blame is still alive, then they tend to play up what that person did wrong,” she says. And then there’s the sensitivity question. “I think journalists have a heart,” she says. “If a child just died, the community’s mourning that person, the journalist doesn’t want to stand there and say the kid was totally drunk.”

The problem with merely telling the story, with playing up the human drama, is that it does nothing to get at the root of why these are such evergreen stories. Even putting blame on certain parties in crashes, while perhaps appealing to some sense of social justice, might reinforce in the reader’s mind the sense, as one report put it, that “the kind of person responsible for most crashes is the ‘other’—someone not like ‘us.’” The types of information presented in news accounts of crashes, and the episodic framing of those stories, give a murky, often skewed sense of what the real sources of risk are in driving—everything from speed to distraction to night driving to fatigue to the way cars behave around large trucks. Driving, after all, is the most dangerous activity most of us will ever do, even if we often do not fully understand why. We need fewer tears, and more facts. 

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).