Road Collision Reporting Guidelines Issued

Journalists reporting on road collisions can now check with a new set of media guidelines drawn up by legal, policing and safety experts. The ten guiding principles for the U.K. media, issued on May 18, have been backed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which also sat on the guidelines working group.

“We hope the information can encourage accurate and fair reporting,” said NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet.

Guidelines already exist to help journalists report on suicides, domestic violence, and refugees.

One of the new Road Collision Reporting Guidelines stresses that journalists should not use the word “accident” for a road collision but instead use “crash.”

Journalists should also ascribe agency in their reporting, stating that it’s motorists killing and maiming, not their motor vehicles. A typical current headline is “Car hits child in pushchair” without mentioning the person piloting the car.

“If you’re talking about a driver, say a driver, not their [motor] vehicle,” states the guidelines, issued by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy and supported with 5,000 words on studies and further references.

According to the guidelines, the headline for the above incident should be “Driver hits child in pushchair.”

Journalists should also check whether the language they use could be inadvertently stigmatizing.

“Research shows that if people see road users, such as cyclists, as less than human, they are more likely to act aggressively towards them on the roads,” the guidelines state.

“Be mindful,” continues the voluntary guidance, “that language insinuating there is a ‘war’ or ‘battle’ on the roads risks in itself inflaming tensions.”

Journalists should also refrain from portraying law-breaking—such as exceeding speed limits by motorists—as socially acceptable.

Motoring organizations the AA and the FIA Foundation support the new guidelines, as do cycling and walking organizations and independent bodies such as the Transport Research Laboratory.

“Language matters, as it helps shape how we see and treat others,” said Rachel Aldred, director of the Active Travel Academy and a professor at the University of Westminster.

“Referring to drivers rather than only their vehicles helps remind us that behind every vehicle—be it a car, an HGV, a cycle or a motorcycle—is a person making decisions that affect the safety of others.”

Lead author of the guidelines freelance journalist Laura Laker—an NUJ member—told me:

“This isn’t about bullying journalists it’s about not using language about so-called ‘accidents’ that might be used in everyday speech but which isn’t accurate.”

She added: “When news stories and features don’t meet the standards then people could suggest the journalists concerned might want to read the guidelines for the next time. Or, if the article is online, the wording could be changed immediately.”

In 2020, the Daily Mail claimed that an early draft of the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines called for “abuse of cyclists to be made a hate crime.” In April this year, the press regulator IPSO ruled against the newspaper, calling its claim “inaccurate.” The Daily Mail subsequently published a (tiny) correction.

“In the last few years, we have learned more than ever how much the framing of messages shapes our opinions even more than the content,” stated Greater Manchester’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner Chris Boardman, “so it’s high time we had guidance when reporting on collisions.”

Living Streets CEO Mary Creagh added: “When someone is tragically injured or killed on our roads, it is essential that the incident is reported accurately to minimize the pain, grief, and suffering to their loved ones.”

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