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I’m not a cyclist. Supporting safer streets is obvious once you ditch vehicle language

safe streets languageSeattle’s safe streets leaders are making headlines around the nation (and even a few overseas) for a deceivingly simple strategy to help keep a public conversation about transportation focused on safety: Choose your words wisely.

PeopleForBikes published a blog post last week highlighting a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways cheat sheet to help people avoid common language pitfalls that often derail conversations about safe streets. In essence, rather than talking about streets as a place where various modes jockey for space, SNG’s guide assumes streets are places for people to get around safely no matter which mode (or modes) they choose. The post has pretty much blown up in bicycling and safe streets circles, such as Streetsblog USA and the UK’s road.cc.

Readers of this blog probably recognize a lot of this language because Seattle Bike Blog has long tried to avoid dehumanizing, wonky and car-centric language (Michael Andersen of PeopleForBikes also interviewed me for the post). I in large part learned it from Bike Portland, a 2013 survey by Cascade Bicycle Club and other people around the world writing about safe streets. It can be a little awkward at first (“driver” is shorter than “person driving”), but it also forces you to rethink statements that unintentionally leave the people out of the conversation.

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At least in America, most people grow up using language that swallows some very destructive and dangerous assumptions. Using words like “driver,” “cyclist” or “pedestrian” turns people into vehicles navigating a traffic system. This deceptively subtle shift can have enormous impacts on everything from the way we treat other people on our streets to the transportation budget options our elected officials prioritize.

By conflating a person’s chosen transportation mode at a particular moment with their personal identity, it becomes shockingly easy think about people as members of warring tribes in conflict, battling for space (cue car horn honking and “cyclist” flipping the bird). The idea of a “war on cars” suddenly makes sense to a lot of people because they see their car lanes being turned into bike lanes for others. The safety and comfort of real living and breathing and loving people getting around on foot and bike has been dropped from the conversation.

But if you think of everyone on the street as a person, discussions go in a very different direction. Because we all want our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members to get around town safely whether they choose to drive, bike or walk. I don’t love my mom any less when she’s driving than when she’s walking.

Traffic violence is no ‘accident’

The all-time best example of dangerous car culture language is the gross misuse of the word “accident” to describe every collision involving a car, whether we know the details or not. The most obvious problem is that not all collisions are accidents, so it’s simply inaccurate. Many are potentially crimes, like DUI, vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, hit and run, etc. This should be reason enough to spur news rooms and government communications offices to update their style guides to avoid the term (many Seattle media folks have done this in recent years).

But worse, the word “accident” implies that the collision was unavoidable. As former Seattle-King County Public Health Director Dr. David Fleming said when helping to craft Seattle’s 2012 Road Safety Action Plan, traffic collisions are one of the biggest preventable causes of death and injury. We know how to prevent collisions and the public health harm they cause through better road design, enforcement and education. Failure to take such actions is no accident. Here’s how the Action Plan explained it (emphasis mine):

No matter how you choose to travel in Seattle, you should feel safe on our streets. Sharing the streets is about more than just following the rules. It requires us to realize that the person in a car, on a bike, or on foot is another human being too, someone who is just trying to get where they’re going safely. The people we pass in our travels are our friends, our neighbors, our family, our co-workers. Far too often, collisions change the lives of these people who share our city, or even cut their lives short. Research shows that the majority of these incidents are preventable. A culture of empathy for each other is the missing ingredient in reducing fatalities and improving safety on our roads.

We tried over the better part of the last century to engineer our cities for vehicles, and it has proven unrealistic at best and deadly at worst. It’s time we designed them for people instead.

This can all seem like nitpicky word-policing, and sometimes it is. But it is vital that we drop the dangerous windshield perspective when making transportation decisions or when speaking to other members of our communities if we are ever going to truly dedicate ourselves to eradicating traffic violence.

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18 responses to “I’m not a cyclist. Supporting safer streets is obvious once you ditch vehicle language”

  1. Josh

    One little-known reason for media use of “accident” — AP Style enforces a technical reading of the word “collision” — only an impact of two objects that were both in motion constitutes a “collision.” (“col” being Latin for together, “laedere” to hurt by striking; it’s only a “collision” if each object struck the other.)

    If a stopped car is hit by a moving car, that’s not a collision according to the Associated Press. If a bicycle runs into a roadside hazard, that’s not a collision to AP.

    Many a press writer, trying to minimize rewrites, will avoid the word “collision” and search for an alternative.

    “Incident” seems to bureaucratic, “crash” seems overdramatic for less-severe events, “accident” seems a plausible replacement, unless you point out to the reporter that it pre-judges the story, contrary to good journalistic practice.

    Reporters may not share the agenda to put people back in the story, but journalism schools do teach the importance of avoiding bias. “Accident” is not a neutral term, it implies certainty that there was no intent, no wanton disregard for safety.

    I’ve had this conversation with more than one reporter who routinely wrote of “accidents,” and at least in my experience, fairness and accuracy were more effective arguments than promoting a culture of empathy.

    If they bring up AP Style and “collision”, point them to AP’s own “Ask the Editor”:

    Q. I’ve always written traffic “crash,” not “accident” because the latter seems to imply no fault. But unceasingly I see people calling crashes accidents. Does it matter? from Fort Collins, Colo. on Oct 22, 2013

    A. Yes, avoid terms that might suggest a conclusion

    1. daihard

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say the term “accident” implies certainly that there was no intent, no wanton disregard for safety.

      When an intoxicated “person driving” hit a “person walking,” there was certainly a wanton disregard for safety, if not an intent to hit someone. Does AP still tell the writers to describe it as an accident? Or am I just not understanding it?

      1. Josh

        They don’t say to call it an “accident,” in fact their guidance says “accident” may prejudge the incident.

        But the caution on “accident” doesn’t make it into the AP Style Book, while the technical use of “collision” does. So more people avoid “collision” than “accident.”

        Really, if you combine AP Style with Strunk & White, the best solution is usually “crash,” a pithy, single-syllable word that doesn’t imply anything about the state of mind of the participants.

      2. Josh

        It occurs to me that might not have been clear if you’re not familiar with AP style.

        The bible of AP Style is the AP Stylebook. It’s a quick guide to standardized usage for news stories. It’s not encyclopedic, it mostly includes terms that have a history of confusion or misuse. “Collision” makes that cut, so it’s in the Stylebook.

        To supplement the Stylebook, AP has an “Ask the Editor” service, where writers can seek clarification or advice on subjects not resolved by the Stylebook. The implications of using “accident” have been addressed by “Ask the Editor,” but haven’t been incorporated into the Stylebook.

        If you just go by the Book, you might not be aware of the concern over “accident,” but you’ll know not to use “collision” if either party might not have been in motion at the time of impact.

      3. daihard

        Thanks for the clarification, Josh.

        Though I wrote for the college paper, the only familiarity I have with AP Style is the lack of Oxford commas and the inclusion of punctuation inside quotes. It’s time for me to study it. :)

    2. Brock Howell

      Wow, Josh! You gave the most precise argument for collision/crash v. accident I’ve ever read! I may have to bookmark this for future citation!

      1. Josh

        Happy to help… when I’m not riding my bike, I’m a word nerd who argues with editors.

  2. Ints

    excellent post on a topic that has been on my mind lately.
    To take this idea to the next step:
    “We tried over the better part of the last century to engineer our cities for vehicles, and it has proven unrealistic at best and deadly at worst. It’s time we designed them for people instead.”
    Look at how Vision Zero approaches the problem in much the same way; designing with people in mind. Seeing users of all transportation modes as people first.

  3. Aaron

    Another major change in our discussion of safe streets that gets overlooked is people’s idea of what a speed limit is. Most people believe the speed limit is how fast you’re supposed to go. Perhaps if we reversed it to Limit Speed to ___(20, 45, etc mph) people would realize that they’re not to go faster than that but have every right to travel much slower if they desire.

    1. Josh

      I believe the Canadian speed limit signs are clearer and allow slightly larger numbers.

      Where we write:


      the Canadian standard calls for:


      One word instead of two, and a clearer statement that it’s the maximum allowable speed.

  4. I urge cycling advocates to insist on their roles as citizens, i.e., a member of the community with rights and responsibilities that go beyond one’s mode of transportation. We play into the prevailing paradigm of engineers when we call for cyclist’s rights–a vehicle has no rights, only citizens do. A citizen has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Streets that threaten those rights, and those who design, approve and aggressively defend high speeds/lane space/vehicle “rights” are guilty of nothing less than violating the rights of their fellow citizens–those that choose to walk or bike or those that have no choice (about 25% of Americans can’t or don’t drive).

    Here’s a post i wrote 3 years ago on the subject: http://gettingto2100.org/i-am-not-a-cyclist/

  5. The thing about accidents is not that they are unpreventable, but that they are unintentional. There’s something that I tell my kids all the time that most grownups have forgotten. It’s this:

    If you are careful, you don’t have accidents.

  6. Tom, thanks for continuing to point out this language issue. I thought about it intentionally for the first time when you discussed language at Cascade’s ALI last fall and it has been on my mind since. I wrote a little short on it too, about how my evolving life has defined my relationship with bikes (and other transportation): https://kevinlugo.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/i-am-not-a-cyclist-i-am-an-urbanite/.

    I am excited to see more thoughtful language continue to break into our discussions and help us break down barriers!

  7. […] Seattle Bike Blog: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2015/02/09/im-not-a-cyclist-supporting-safer-streets-is-obvious-once-… […]

  8. Nullbull

    I frankly think there’s more value is simply being honest and straight about this. Some of these suggested replacements are great. Some are trying too hard. I understand the intent and the value of using language this way. But in some cases it simply paints over reality with feel-good language.

    The law and certain design elements of the traffic system very much divide, discriminate, and create winners and losers in given situations. Tactically, this is almost always based on mode. That will never change, and I think we need to be honest about it. When we go to implement, we will be in a world of cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers – not a world of “people with different mobility needs.” At the tactical level, we will be looking at modes, volumes, incentives, laws, enforcement, etc. All of which re-create the separation and distinction between users – even if we’ve banished that language from our “process.”

    I don’t see the reason for minimizing a distinction during planning and outreach that we will simply amplify again when we start re-striping, protecting, paving, signaling, etc.

    1. ODB

      I’m also troubled by this linguistic project, but I’ve been struggling to put this into concrete terms. Your post does a great job of articulating some of my incoherent sentiments. I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that these projects don’t create winners and losers and we lose credibility by ignoring the adverse consequences of certain bicycle projects for other transportation modes. I’ve made a similar point before in these comments in the context of certain bike projects being better suited to slow/timorous cyclists versus fast/confident ones–a difference that seems never to be acknowledged here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of many bike projects, but I think it is crucial to be up front about all of their impacts for different modes, positive and negative.

      I also dislike the project because it strikes me as a rhetorical strategy to delegitmize dissenting views. The proposition appears to be that changing language in certain ways will cause everyone to recognize our common humanity as “people” who are biking, driving, etc., and that this recognition will lead to consensus around particular transportation/urban planning objectives and proposals. In other words, it has been a failure to recognize others’ humanity that has thus far prevented the unenlightened from seeing the overwhelming merit of these proposals. To slightly misquote Franz Ferdinand: “Right Words, Right Thoughts, Right Action!” I dislike the implication that a failure to support, say, a protected bike lane in a particular location, arises not from legitimate differences in view regarding the best allocation scarce resources, but from a failure to recognize our common humanity. It’s actually a very arrogant position to take.

      1. If a change in language is merely intended to steer a debate in a particular direction, I think that’s pretty dubious. “Healthy transportation” could be used in a judgmental way, for example — “My transportation is healthy and yours isn’t”. “Sustainable” anything can be used that way, too. But it can also be used to express a collective aspiration, with the humbling recognition that no person’s choices can be sustainable (or healthy) as part of a civilization that is fundamentally not so.

        If we change the language to make a discussion more inclusive and to encourage finding common ground that is its own reward. If we talk about neighbors’ access to community amenities instead of just pedestrians’ or cyclists’, that includes the person that lives just across the busy street that drives because the nearest crosswalk is so far down the road. If you say “drivers” and “pedestrians” you exclude them; when you say “neighbors” you include them. When you’re demanding a change in the status quo, divided and bitter discussions that result in giving up and resigning to no change are a particularly bad result, so promoting inclusivity and cooperation may be a good tactical move. But it has to go through real inclusivity and cooperation; otherwise this year’s “yes” words will become next year’s toxic “no” words.

  9. […] you ditch the vehicle language,” says Seattle writer Tom Fucoloro. He puts it this way on his Seattle Bike blog: “If you think of everyone on the street as a person, discussions go in a very different […]

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