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. 

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