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Oregon State Police blames vulnerable victims while driving deaths spin out of control

Oregon State Police blames vulnerable victims while driving deaths spin out of control

Don't pay attention to this, but please make sure you wear hi-viz clothing next time you take the dog for walk.(Photos: Oregon State Police)

Just some of the Oregon driving carnage of the past two weeks.
(Photos: Oregon State Police)

This is an editorial.

The Oregon State Police issued a relatively rare safety message to the media today. In light of three collisions in the past nine days that resulted in the death of someone trying to walk or roll across a state highway, they included the following message in a press statement (emphasis theirs):

***This is the third fatal crash involving pedestrians that OSP has investigated in the past week***

OSP urges pedestrians and bicyclists to wear bright colors, have reflective material and use extra caution when there is limited visibility due to hours of darkness or inclement weather. Also be knowledgeable of the laws pertaining to biking or traveling near and on highways. Please visit the Oregon Department of Transportation’s pedestrian safety [web] page for further information on pedestrian safety.

(Note: In at least two of the three collisions, the stretch of highway was not well lit and didn’t have any place to cross.)

The message was picked up by The Oregonian a few minutes ago with the headline, “State police urge pedestrians to be careful on highways.” The lead paragraph states, “Three people have died within eight days after crossing in front of moving cars on state highways, the Oregon State Police said Friday afternoon.”

The way that reads, it’s as if these people willfully put themselves in harm’s way and were asking for it.

While I appreciate the OSP’s concern for safety — their focus on “pedestrians and bicyclists” in this context is misplaced and troubling. They are blaming victims in collisions where we’ll never know what truly happened (because we can’t ask the person who was hit). That being said, this isn’t about blame. The State Police play a huge role in our transportation culture and we need them to set a great example for other agencies, the media, and all Oregonians. Dividing road users into unhelpful labels like “pedestrians and bicyclists” — especially in the context of blaming victims — is simply not in line with best practices and it needs to stop.







What’s also troubling is how the OSP treats these deaths to people outside of motorized vehicles so much differently than fatal crashes that involve only people driving cars.

While OSP felt the need to issue a special message about “pedestrians and bicyclists” safety because of three fatalities in nine days — they issued no such blame or special notice when seven people died and two were seriously injured in five separate collisions in the five days between October 21st and the 25th. That doesn’t include a 10-year-old girl who died Tuesday when the car she was in “drifted off” Highway 78, rolled several times, and ejected her from her seat.

Look at these headlines from the Oregon State Police in just the past two weeks:

  • OSP Continuing Fatal Crash Investigation of a Child Passenger on Highway 78 – Malheur County (Photo) – 11/03/16
  • Two Killed In Collision On I-84 Near Boardman – Morrow County – 10/25/16
  • Three Killed In Highway 211 Crash North Of Molalla – Clackamas County (Photo) – 10/23/16
  • New Mexico Man Killed In Crash On Highway 26 Near Madras (Jefferson County) (Photo) – 10/23/16
  • California Couple Seriously Injured In Friday Morning Crash Near Sisters – Deschutes County (Photo) – 10/23/16
  • Coburg Man Killed In Crash On Interstate 5 – Lane County – 10/21/16

That sounds like a huge crisis! Where is the special safety message from the OSP imploring people to use more caution while driving, slow down, and be extra careful?

The OSP is going out of their way to blame our most vulnerable road users while ignoring driving deaths. This not only shifts the agency’s safety resources and policy attention away from where it should be, but it results in an unnecessary fear of walking and biking and a corresponding lack of fear about the dangers of driving. This is the opposite of what we should be doing to get more people to walk and bike and fewer people to use cars.

OSP’s messaging needs to improve if the State of Oregon is going to reach their stated goal of zero deaths by 2035.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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Crashes are still accidents at the Oregon DMV

Crashes are still accidents at the Oregon DMV

I was looking for the crash report form.(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

I was looking for the crash report form.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

As advocates and even the Associated Press move away from calling all traffic incidents “accidents” there’s one important state agency that shows no signs of ridding itself of the controversial word. And unfortunately it just so happens to be the one agency that every single licensed driver has contact with: the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles.

A few weeks ago I paid a visit to the DMV office in downtown Portland. As I walked in I noticed a wall rack full of forms and one of them stared back at me: “Accident Report” it read. It made my language and activism hairs stand on end. As many of you already know, there are a lot of reasons why the word “accident” should never be used in the context of vehicle interactions on streets. For starters, calling something an “accident” makes a huge assumption that the crash was unavoidable and unintentional. And if that isn’t reason enough, the term dismisses the pain of crash victims.

When I got home from the DMV I pulled up the DMV website and there was that word again, splashed all over the page. From local to regional to statewide government, I haven’t seen any transportation-related agency use the term “accident” so much. I had to ask the DMV about it.

dmv-site

So I emailed the DMV spokesman David House. Would you be willing to start a conversation to phase out the use of “accident” at the DMV? I asked. As usual House shared a thorough and thoughtful response.

House has been at the Oregon Department of Transportation (they manage the DMV) for nearly two decades and recalled that the discussion about whether to use “crash,” “collision,” or “accident” had been around since before he got there. He said the DMV uses both terms.

One of the big reasons is consistency and clarity. “Accident” is still used in many Oregon statutes and that’s why it’s also used on the DMV’s forms. Here are just a few of the laws the word comes up in:

801.026 (c) Failure to perform the duties of a driver involved in an accident or collision

801.040 (5) Any incorporated city may by ordinance require that the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident

801.280 … damages for liability, on account of accidents arising out of…

806.170 Department check on financial certification on accident reports

806.190 Insurance carrier report of person involved in accident

806.200 Failure to file after accident; penalty

House also said he believes “accident” is the most easily understood term because it has been so widely used for over a century.





What does he make of the push to reconsider the word?

“We have heard the argument that not all crashes are accidental – that some can even be considered intentional or inevitable based on intentional choices,” House said. “But even with all those bad choices, the crash itself was not intentional. There are cases in which an incident is intentional – but like the ‘homicide’ versus ‘murder’ example, people are innocent until proved guilty.”

“The only people debating the nuances between the terms are people who are passionate about language and writing.”
— David House, DMV public affairs

House said that the DMV uses “crash” and “accident” interchangeably. “‘Auto accident’ is widely understood everywhere else because in the context of automobiles and DMV, ‘accident’ means the same thing as ‘crash’ no matter intent, circumstance or fault,” he said.

Another reason the DMV is sticking with accident for now is that it’s simply not a priority for legislators. Even if it was potentially brought up, House added, “Lawmakers would ask themselves whether this change warranted the time and expense of changing statutes, forms, manuals and computer programming.”

And from his perspective, the public isn’t really clamoring for the change either. “The only people debating the nuances between the terms are people who are passionate about language and writing.”

In the end House’s goal at the DMV is to make sure the terms they use are easily understood so people can obey the laws and correctly fill out the forms after they’re involved in an incident. “If the nuances between the terms becomes a problem for people fulfilling their reporting requirements,” he said. “We’ll pursue a solution.”

One of the people who might want to see the DMV pursue a solution to this issue is Noel Mickelberry, executive director of Portland based nonprofit Oregon Walks.

“Language can help shift the way the public views a situation, and how they react to it, and in turn how policy, funding, and laws get changed as a result.”
— Noel Mickelberry, executive director of Oregon Walks

After I shared House’s comments with Mickelberry she said she was surprised that ODOT has been aware of the issue since the 1990s. “To me, that makes it even more surprising that a shift hasn’t taken place.”

Mickelberry also took notice of House’s assertion that the only people who care about this issue are those who are “passionate about language and writing.” “I think it’s been made clear through the ‘Crash not Accident’ campaign stemming from Families for Safe Streets in New York,” she said, “That the people that this really matters to are the people who have been impacted by traffic violence. When the media or an elected official or when, and even especially when, language by our government prioritizes a word that seems to trivialize the occurrence to an unavoidable one – it trivializes the reality that they are forced to live with for the rest of their life.”

In the broader picture Mickelberry believes the words we use impact our culture. Here’s what she says about that:

“Language can help shift the way the public views a situation, and how they react to it, and in turn how policy, funding, and laws get changed as a result. It should be important to all of us to ensure it is not triggering, trivializing, or demeaning – in any circumstance.

It is immensely hard to shift language, especially when you might not recognize the impact it has on other people. The word ‘lame’ has become a common used word to describe things that are stupid or boring. This word stems from describing people with physical limitations to movement. It is still not erased from our vocabulary, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the roots of this word myself. As someone not directly impacted by the word, it was easy to ignore. We shouldn’t ignore this plea from families.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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A look inside one newspaper’s thinking on crashes, accidents and collisions

A look inside one newspaper’s thinking on crashes, accidents and collisions

fatal accident angle

OregonLive.com coverage of a fatal collision this month.

“Accident”? “Crash”? “Collision”?

The Oregonian’s director of news says the newspaper’s unofficial practice has been, for years, to avoid “accident” in the absence of information because that word suggests that a traffic incident was unpreventable.

But the copy desk chief says the opposite: his preference is to go with “accident” in the absence of information because he feels “crash” and “collision” are favored by “activists” and the newspaper needs to remain neutral.

Reporters, meanwhile, don’t seem to be sure what to do. Last week, a business reporter was taking her turn on a weekend cops shift when an allegedly drunk driver killed a 17-year-old; her report described this as a “bike accident.” After a local lawyer emailed her to suggest different phrasing, she first described the word choice as “fine” based on the advice of one editor, then later apologized based on the advice of a different editor.

This week, a different reporter initially used “accident” after a different allegedly drunk driver who had been driving the wrong way on McLoughlin Boulevard at 1:30 a.m. turned around and collided her car with another man’s, sending him to the hospital. After another email from the lawyer, Scott Kocher, the second reporter agreed to change to “crash.”

“A lot of times when you’re talking about transportation collisions, there’s elements that are preventable.”
— Therese Bottomly, The Oregonian

After hearing from Kocher about these exchanges, we decided to try to get clarification on The Oregonian’s policy. That wasn’t easy, though. Asked who runs the newspaper’s copy desk (the traditional decision-maker on style issues) the paper’s transportation reporter said he wasn’t sure.

Our first stop was Therese Bottomly, the longtime managing editor of The Oregonian/OregonLive and a former copy editor herself.

“We typically try to avoid ‘accident,’” Bottomly, whose current title is director of news, said in an interview Thursday. “‘Accident’ to me, you could interpret it as being entirely unpreventable. And a lot of times when you’re talking about transportation collisions, there’s elements that are preventable.”

“That’s just been our practice for as long as I can remember,” she said. But Bottomly said different word choices sometimes fall through the cracks because the use of “collision” or “crash” is only a practice, not an official rule at the paper as spelled out by its stylebook.

“I don’t think it’s actually in our Oregonian stylebook,” Bottomly said. “That’s something that the copy desk keeps.”

Bottomly said the newspaper has a style committee that has “officially ruled on hundreds of things,” but she wasn’t sure who sits on it these days.






On Monday, I got ahold of Jake Arnold, production leader at The Oregonian/OregonLive and the de facto copy desk chief. He told me the same thing Bottomly had: the Associated Press style guide offers no guidance on the question, and The Oregonian’s internal stylebook doesn’t either.

“Our general feeling is we try to use the most descriptive words possible,” Arnold said. “Often ‘crash’ can be a more descriptive word than ‘accident.’ … ‘Crash’ is also a more value-loaded word. Generally ‘the accident’ implies no fault.”

“The two words would have been interchangeable 20 years ago. Now lawyers have decided that this means that and that means that. To some it does, to others it doesn’t.”
— Jake Arnold, The Oregonian

Arnold said that because the newspaper can’t be sure who was at fault in an incident, “we lean toward ‘accident.’”

I asked why the newspaper would want to presume that there was no fault if it does not yet know whether there was no fault.

“An accident is something that happened, and it can either mean no fault or it can mean we don’t know who’s at fault,” Arnold said. “Crash has more of a presumption of someone is to blame. … As a newspaper we are not in the practice of laying blame.”

“Language is evolving,” Arnold continued. “The two words would have been interchangeable 20 years ago. Now lawyers have decided that this means that and that means that. To some it does, to others it doesn’t.”

I asked about Bottomly’s notion that “accident” suggests that there was nothing someone could have done to prevent a collision. “That tends to be a more activist view of the meaning of the word ‘accident,’ Arnold said. “I don’t think the general population lays much meaning on the word.”

Ultimately, Arnold said, different Oregonian employees will differ on precisely what words mean.

“It’s why we put things in the style guide,” he said. “Therese has a background as a copy editor, and so it would not surprise me at all if that is part of her foundation of understanding and that she has instructed her reporters to act accordingly. The fact of the matter is that by the time it gets to the copy desk we don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. If the reporter types ‘accident,’ we probably go with ‘accident,’ and if the reporter types ‘crash,’ we probably go with ‘crash.’”

So what’s the process for putting something in a style guide?

“Generally some sort of issue gets raised, somebody says, ‘we have a question on this,’” Arnold said. “We kick it around the copy desk. talk to reporters, talk to experts.”

Under the paper’s traditional process, that would have led to a discussion and vote by a style committee of four to seven people. But years of staff cutbacks had made the committee defunct, he said.

“Really it’s just me monitoring it,” he said.

Read more stories in our Language Matters column archives.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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Dear fellow journalists: This is why you should use #CrashNotAccident

Dear fellow journalists: This is why you should use #CrashNotAccident

fatal accident angle

OregonLive.com coverage of Saturday’s fatal encounter.

I spent five years in daily newspapers. I get it. Everyone has an axe to grind; it is not your job to grind their axes for them.

When you use the word “accident” in a story about a man who allegedly decided to get drunk and zoom down an East Portland side street in a pickup truck, presumably getting a nice bounce over the speed bumps right before he killed a 17-year old on a bicycle, some people get upset.

Use “crash” or “collision,” they plead. Not “accident.”

I got these comments myself sometimes after I’d worked weekend shifts at my last newspaper, The Columbian, and for years I ignored them.

A weekend evening on most of the nation’s daily newspapers is a bloody routine. More Saturday nights than not, you will end up reporting (remotely, without ever visiting the scenes) brief items about one or more of the approximately 577 people who die every week in traffic collisions across the country.

Sometimes you type “collision.” Sometimes you type “accident.” I never had an editor that cared. No wonder; the AP Stylebook implies they’re equivalent.

Of course nobody gets behind a wheel intending to die or kill, I reasoned. Of course these are accidents. By using language acknowledging the plain fact that the deaths were not deliberate, I am avoiding a jump to conclusions. I am being the grownup here.





Then, finally, I landed on an Active Right of Way email thread with a bunch of people who later became my friends. We were discussing a collision in which a man named Antonio Cellestine had been texting while driving and killed a high school teacher.

One person in the conversation, a safety advocate and professional linguist named Alexis Grant, wrote the explanation that set me straight.

The definition of “accident” is “occurs unintentionally”. The final act may be unintentional, but it can still be a serious crime (manslaughter in this case), and one whose genesis was definitely in choices made by the perpetrator. Cellestine was driving on a suspended license and was texting while driving. Intentionally. Those were his choices, even knowing that he was legally forbidden from driving and that texting while driving is not permitted. He decided to break two laws intended to keep the roads safer. He created circumstances in which his likelihood of hurting or killing others or himself was heightened, circumstances he could have chosen not to create. Calling the result an accident minimizes the agency he had in creating it.

Some traffic collisions are actually accidents. Once in a while, someone dies without anyone having made any decision that significantly contributed to the death.

But here’s the thing: A reporter working on a breaking news story about a traffic fatality has no way of knowing whether a particular crash is an accident or not. It’s the same as using “homicide” instead of “murder” or “fight” instead of “attack.” You weren’t there. You just don’t know.

For journalists, the point of avoiding “accident” is not to advance social justice on the streets. The point is to avoid making an inaccurate assumption.

For journalists, the point of avoiding “accident” is not to advance social justice on the streets. That’s an axe for other people to grind.

The point of avoiding “accident” is to do one’s job: to avoid making an inaccurate assumption.

When you are listening to a police scanner in a cubicle late at night, or standing in the rain beside a yellow police ribbon, or interviewing a police sergeant the next day, you simply do not have enough facts to know what choices might have contributed to the collision. You do not know if the collision was purely an accident, and you should not presume that it was.

“Crash” is more accurate. It’s shorter, too. Just write “crash.”

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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Language Matters: Three rhetorical tricks bike advocates could learn from Uber’s Plouffe

Language Matters: Three rhetorical tricks bike advocates could learn from Uber’s Plouffe


(Video courtesy Willamette Week/Tech Fest Northwest)

Language Matters is an occasional column about the ways we talk about bikes and biking.

When bike believers get political, they often struggle with talking points. People who know the argument for biking in their bones can forget that those who don’t ride won’t be convinced without words.

David Plouffe has never struggled with talking points.

The Obama campaign manager and strategic advisor turned professional Uber evangelist was in town last week to speak at the annual Tech Fest Northwest conference, and his 13-minute stump speech on behalf of his current employer was a rhetorical sight to behold.

Leaving aside the debates about Uber itself, it’s worth taking a minute here to admire the work of a very talented communicator. His arguments (which preceded a somewhat less controlled sit-down interview with Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman and Mayor Charlie Hales) were meticulously sculpted, sometimes shameless, and definitely effective. Though it’s a little hard for a journalist to applaud them, they definitely made me wonder how much more effective bike advocates could be if they stole a few tricks from this bag.

4:45 – “A quarter of our trips so far start or end within a quarter-mile of public transportation. We see this all over the world where we’re operating. We are an augmentation of public transportation.”

Much like the words “hope,” “change,” and “Kennedy,” the phrase “public transportation” polls very well in American cities. And as Willamette Week reported Friday, Plouffe’s most prominent theme was to associate Uber with public transit every way he could.

Does he have a point? Well, maybe. Does the fact that a quarter of everything in urban areas probably happens within a quarter-mile of public transportation make his rhetoric any less effective? Nope. Plouffe’s tactic here is to find a statistic (any statistic) that tells a story about Uber complementing and improving public transit. In the world of bikes, where there’s a century of strong evidence that this is definitely true, this story is much easier to tell.

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7:33 – “Thirty percent of our trips so far in the U.S. start or end at a small business. A small business. [Note: It might be worth listening to the video just to hear the way he delivers this sentence.] Many of them small businesses that are off of a public transportation line. So it was harder for them to get traffic. Now they’ve got people being dropped off at their doorstop, whether it’s a retailer or a restaurant, and in an easy, seamless way.”

What’s a “small” business? We don’t know. How “many” of them are away from public transit lines? Plouffe doesn’t have that data, but it doesn’t stop him from telling a story with it. Are Uber trips any more or less likely to land at small businesses than other trips? No matter. Again, the factoid is there to lend truthiness to the actual underlying truth, which is simply that people use Uber to get places and getting people places they need to go is generally good for the economy.

That’s not a controversial point. But the idea that a transportation system could ever include a meaningfully large number of trips by Uber — or by bicycles, or by skateboards, or by any other vehicle that doesn’t currently fit into most Americans’ daily lives — is something that many people struggle to accept. Plouffe’s factoid is mostly useless in its own right, but used here it adds a graspable bit of specificity to this abstract concept.

11:30 – “All it would take is 15 percent of Los Angeles residents to carpool, and you’d never have a traffic jam in Los Angeles again.”

When Plouffe said this, an audible gasp went around my section of the auditorium. That’s how effective it was.

This factoid is actually the mirror image of the other two: it’s true on its face, but the underlying idea is bogus. Would a 15 percent drop in traffic end congestion in L.A? Yes. But the moment that happened, Los Angeles would become way better to drive in, so more people would choose to drive more, and the roads would fill up again.

The difference by the end of that scenario, of course, wouldn’t be less congestion. It’d be something harder to explain: more capacity. L.A. streets would be as jammed as ever, but they’d be carrying 15 percent more trips with almost zero public cost.

Sounds like a best-case scenario for another type of transportation I could mention.

Rhetorical moves like these are definitely a dark art, and Plouffe got away with them in part because of the halo of goodwill that any member of “the Obama family” (as he referred to himself in his first few sentences) has in Portland. But if bike advocates are serious about winning battles for public investment, they could almost certainly learn from a pro like Plouffe. For better or worse, he knows how the game is played.


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National org wants to know: What should we call this thing we do everyday?

National org wants to know: What should we call this thing we do everyday?

pfbsurvey

People for Bikes, a national advocacy group funded by the bicycle industry, wants to change cycling in America by coming up with a new name for it. Specifically, the group wants help figuring out what to call everyday cycling in order to differentiate it from recreation and fitness riding.

Here’s the set-up from People for Bikes via an email they sent out today:

“Lots of people ride bikes for recreation, exercise and sport. But there’s another kind of bicycling that’s becoming more and more popular in communities across the country. It’s difficult to quantify, because folks call it a lot of different things. And it doesn’t have an official name…

Imagine you’re rolling out on your bike right from your garage—no spandex involved, you’re wearing normal, everyday clothes.

You’re heading somewhere you need to go—like work, a meeting, or the grocery store. This might be part of your daily routine, or maybe you’re in the mood to run errands or get from point A to point B by bike, because it’s gorgeous outside…

This trip isn’t about exercise. You’ve got a destination in mind, and the bike’s the way you get there…

Help us name it by taking this survey!”

It’s worth noting that People for Bikes is the same group behind the Green Lane Project, a program that’s working to hasten the development of protected bike lanes across the country. They say they want to establish a new word for this specific type of cycling in order to, “quantify it, count the people who do it, and grow the movement.”

In an online survey, they offer four choices (they also allow you to fill in with whatever name you like). Here they are:

  • Everyday Biking
  • City Riding
  • Community Cycling
  • Functional Bicycling, or Funcycling

In my opinion, when it comes to language issues, I like to keep things simple and I try to avoid creating new labels whenever possible. When ideas like this come up, I also like to compare how it’s handled from a car-oriented perspective (I figure they’re a good model to emulate, giving the popularity and political dominance of driving). Does the AAA have separate terms for driving? I don’t think so. Do we differentiate between recreational driving trips and more serious, utilitarian driving trips? Nope.

One concern I have is that by slicing cycling up into its sub-parts, we’ll only make each group smaller and thus lessen the collective voice. We also might unintentionally create more divisions and cliques when what we need (in my opinion) to make major national progress for cycling is a large and unified voice pushing in (mostly) the same direction.

And who’s to say that a ride into work or to the store can’t also be recreation, fitness, and fun?!

Given those thoughts, I have used the term “everyday cycling” when I want to make it clear that I’m talking about people who aren’t suited up in lycra or riding for a workout.

What do you think?

Take the survey here.

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Comparing language in winter traffic advisories from PBOT and ODOT

Comparing language in winter traffic advisories from PBOT and ODOT

Are all road users equally served by traffic advisories?

We think the words people use say a lot about their perspectives and priorities. That’s why I always enjoy reading traffic advisories and press releases from our local transportation agencies.

When it comes to severe weather warnings, I have communicated directly with both the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) that their statements should not ignore the fact that many people in this region ride bicycles in winter. Yes, even when it snows and rains.

So, with this week’s big snowstorm on its way, I sat back and waited to see how each agency would handle the inevitable bad weather road advisories. I’m happy to report, that while not perfect, both agencies have improved a lot in recent years! Let’s start with ODOT…

I had high hopes that ODOT would recall past advice I’d given them and would not solely address “drivers” in their Region 1 (Portland area) weather alert. While I still feel their statement was more auto and driver-centric than it should be, I was very pleased to see how they at least mentioned — albeit not front and center — something other than driving.

Here’s their headline and introduction. Notice how it’s directed toward just one type of road user:

Forecast predicts dangerous driving conditions: Travelers should watch the forecast and stay off the roads if conditions deteriorate

Motorists should use extreme caution this weekend if bad weather makes for treacherous roads in the Portland area.

As a road user who primarily rides a bike (and I know there are many others like me, and others still who almost never drive), this type of language makes it seem like my experience isn’t as important as others. As the statement continued, ODOT did include some safety tips; but they too were completely auto-centric.”Pedestrians” and “bicyclists” were only mentioned as barriers one might encounter while driving:

“No one can safely drive on ice. If roads get icy, consider not driving or delaying your trip until the weather warms and the ice thaws. In ice or snow, allow plenty of stopping distance and watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists because stopping distances are so much longer.”

Then it got better:

“Consider leaving the driving to the professionals and taking mass transit. Consider walking, riding a bike, working from home or taking the day off until the roads are clear.”

But in the last sentence, it was back to ODOT’s expected default behavior:

“Driving on ice is never a safe choice. The safest thing to do is stay off the road.”

It have been just as effective and a lot less auto-centric to write, “Traveling on ice is never a safe choice”. After all, that would have applied to everyone — whether they were driving, walking, biking or taking transit.

And now let’s take a closer look at how the City of Portland did…

I am very happy with PBOT’s “Winter Travel Advisory”. They avoided mode labels and used the neutral “traveling public” or just “public” when warning folks to use caution out on the roads. The only time mode labels were used was to share specific tips and advice.

Here’s their headline and intro:

Transportation Bureau prepares for snow, possible freezing rain; advises the public on how to travel safely

With the potential for snow and freezing rain in the forecast into the weekend, the Portland Bureau of Transportation advises the traveling public to use caution, consider taking public transit and stay apprised of the potential for rapidly changing conditions.

See how everyone will feel like that message applies to them? They even managed to get a plug in for public transit.

And then there was a word from Transportation Director Leah Treat. Again, she suggested not driving: “We encourage people to use public transit during storm events.” Then she advised, “When biking or walking, wear high-visibility clothing and be careful on surfaces that could be slick.” Notice how she used the verbs “biking” and “walking” instead of “Bicyclists and pedestrians should wear…”? That’s a great approach and it’s a trick I use — and recommend — whenever possible. Verbs are almost always better than labels.

It’s great to see bicycles included in PBOT’s messaging. I recall just a few years ago in 2009 when bicycling was completely left out of a PBOT storm response survey. And going back to 2008, bicycling didn’t even merit a mention in a snowstorm traffic advisory.

Overall, both agencies did better than they have in the past. In the future, we’d love to see statements that have equal appeal and value to all road users — whether they drive a car or not.

— We think about language a lot here at BikePortland and we only sometimes write about it. Check out our “language matters” story tag for more.

Language Matters: Despising ‘avid cyclist’ and a news story anatomy

Language Matters: Despising ‘avid cyclist’ and a news story anatomy

“The term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.”
— Chris Bruntlett, via Hush Magazine

In our ongoing effort to raise awareness about how the words we use establish (sometimes harmful) cultural norms and have a major impact on our discussions around traffic safety and bicycling, we’re bringing back our Language Matters column.

While many people still don’t get why we take this issue so seriously, we are heartened by two recent examples we’ve come across that help make the case that this is something worthy of consideration and action.

The first is an excellent essay by Vancouver (Canada) resident Chris Bruntlett titled, I Am Not a Cyclist which was published on Hush Magazine’s website last week. Chris emailed us to share the essay and said he was inspired to write it after an appearance on a local talk radio show where the host referred to him as an “avid cyclist” throughout the interview. Chris said he had recently watched Áron Halász’s Cyclists Do Not Exist Tedx talk and he read our story from last month about a researcher’s work on language use and bike advocacy.

Here’s an excerpt from Chris’s essay:

I am no more an avid cyclist than I am an avid walker or avid eater. I am someone who often uses a bicycle, simply because it is the most civilized, efficient, enjoyable, and economical way to get around my city… As well as possessing a bike, I also own a share in the Modo car co-op, a Compass Card, and many pairs of shoes. The bicycle is merely a means to an end. It is a tool which does not convert me into a cyclist, any more than vacuuming my apartment turns me into a janitor, or brushing my teeth transforms me into a dental hygienist.

In a local context, the term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.

Chris also shares his belief that as his city’s infrastructure and culture slowly (but surely) change toward being more sensitive to bicycling it will no longer be a political or environmental statement. “Then, and only then,” he writes, “will we stop identifying folks as ‘cyclists’, and treat them as individuals, with a diverse range of politics, incomes, ethnicities, careers, and interests.”

And he ends with a simple request:

So please, stop calling me a cyclist. I’m a husband, a father, a designer, a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician, a humanist, an urbanist, a vegetarian, and a football supporter. But most importantly, I’m the citizen of a multi-modal city. The bicycle is but a minor detail.

Read the full essay at HushMagazine.com.

Our second item is the Anatomy of a news story posted in the current newsletter of the Cambridge (UK) Cycling Campaign (and brought to our attention by Steven Vance). The author, Raymond Brown, takes a recent news article about a traffic collision and examines each section based on the article’s choice of words and language style. He takes on issues people often discuss here on BikePortland such as: Why the reporter mentions helmet use; implications of blame in relation to the word “collision”; and so on.

From Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Read it here.

Here’s Brown’s criticism with the news article’s use of a common phrase:

‘He was struck’: the use of the passive here suggests it was serendipity, just ‘one of those things’, like ‘he was struck by lightning’, not the result of one or other party’s action. I would have said: ‘The collision took place on Milton Road just before the junction with the guided busway.’

What struck me about Brown’s post was that the news article he featured is almost identical to hundreds of similar articles posted to the web nearly every day. What I’ve found (at least here in the States), is that those short statements about collisions are often posted by news organizations verbatim from police statements. While that in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing to do, it’s very rare that the news outlet will present the information as being copy/pasted from the police (I think that’s an important distinction).

Read more at CamCycle.org.uk.

I think both of these posts offer important takeaways about language use and how it impacts our perceptions.

— More from our Language Matters series here.

Language Matters: Despising ‘avid cyclist’ and a news story anatomy

Language Matters: Despising ‘avid cyclist’ and a news story anatomy

“The term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.”
— Chris Bruntlett, via Hush Magazine

In our ongoing effort to raise awareness about how the words we use establish (sometimes harmful) cultural norms and have a major impact on our discussions around traffic safety and bicycling, we’re bringing back our Language Matters column.

While many people still don’t get why we take this issue so seriously, we are heartened by two recent examples we’ve come across that help make the case that this is something worthy of consideration and action.

The first is an excellent essay by Vancouver (Canada) resident Chris Bruntlett titled, I Am Not a Cyclist which was published on Hush Magazine’s website last week. Chris emailed us to share the essay and said he was inspired to write it after an appearance on a local talk radio show where the host referred to him as an “avid cyclist” throughout the interview. Chris said he had recently watched Áron Halász’s Cyclists Do Not Exist Tedx talk and he read our story from last month about a researcher’s work on language use and bike advocacy.

Here’s an excerpt from Chris’s essay:

I am no more an avid cyclist than I am an avid walker or avid eater. I am someone who often uses a bicycle, simply because it is the most civilized, efficient, enjoyable, and economical way to get around my city… As well as possessing a bike, I also own a share in the Modo car co-op, a Compass Card, and many pairs of shoes. The bicycle is merely a means to an end. It is a tool which does not convert me into a cyclist, any more than vacuuming my apartment turns me into a janitor, or brushing my teeth transforms me into a dental hygienist.

In a local context, the term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.

Chris also shares his belief that as his city’s infrastructure and culture slowly (but surely) change toward being more sensitive to bicycling it will no longer be a political or environmental statement. “Then, and only then,” he writes, “will we stop identifying folks as ‘cyclists’, and treat them as individuals, with a diverse range of politics, incomes, ethnicities, careers, and interests.”

And he ends with a simple request:

So please, stop calling me a cyclist. I’m a husband, a father, a designer, a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician, a humanist, an urbanist, a vegetarian, and a football supporter. But most importantly, I’m the citizen of a multi-modal city. The bicycle is but a minor detail.

Read the full essay at HushMagazine.com.

Our second item is the Anatomy of a news story posted in the current newsletter of the Cambridge (UK) Cycling Campaign (and brought to our attention by Steven Vance). The author, Raymond Brown, takes a recent news article about a traffic collision and examines each section based on the article’s choice of words and language style. He takes on issues people often discuss here on BikePortland such as: Why the reporter mentions helmet use; implications of blame in relation to the word “collision”; and so on.

From Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Read it here.

Here’s Brown’s criticism with the news article’s use of a common phrase:

‘He was struck’: the use of the passive here suggests it was serendipity, just ‘one of those things’, like ‘he was struck by lightning’, not the result of one or other party’s action. I would have said: ‘The collision took place on Milton Road just before the junction with the guided busway.’

What struck me about Brown’s post was that the news article he featured is almost identical to hundreds of similar articles posted to the web nearly every day. What I’ve found (at least here in the States), is that those short statements about collisions are often posted by news organizations verbatim from police statements. While that in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing to do, it’s very rare that the news outlet will present the information as being copy/pasted from the police (I think that’s an important distinction).

Read more at CamCycle.org.uk.

I think both of these posts offer important takeaways about language use and how it impacts our perceptions.

— More from our Language Matters series here.

Researcher explores the ‘Language of promoting cycling’

Researcher explores the ‘Language of promoting cycling’

“When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists””.
— Glen Koorey, University of Canterbury

A reader (who works at a local planning firm) emailed me a link to an amazing bit of research this morning. A 2007 paper written by Glen Koorey, a transportation researcher based at the University of Canterbury titled, Are You a Cyclist or Do You Cycle? The Language of Promoting Cycling.

This 10-page paper (PDF) blows my mind, not because of the subject matter itself, but because Mr. Koorey explores a topic I have thought and spoken about for many years. It’s as if he crawled inside my brain and then reported back what he found.

From the online abstract, it appears Koorey presented the paper at a cycling conference in New Zealand. Here’s how he introduces the topic:

“Promoting more cycling in New Zealand is still an exercise fraught with much adversity, both from the general public and from decision- and policy-makers. It is therefore crucial that anyone advocating for a better cycling environment is careful in how they present their case, lest they end up “scoring an own goal” or furthering existing mis-conceptions.”


Anyone who reads this site closely, follows my daily rants on Twitter, or has heard me talk about this in person, knows that I agree with much of Koorey’s thinking. While I was not previously aware of his work, I find it fascinating that he and I have come to some of the same conclusions about 1) how to talk about cycling and 2) the power and importance language has in general.

Here’s more from the abstract:

Some key examples of this include:

  • Referring to “cyclists” rather than “people who cycle”, the former often conjuring up images of a relatively small bunch of “weird” people who only ever cycle.
  • Asking to “provide cycle facilities” rather than “provide for cycling”, when many treatments that greatly benefit cyclists often involve no dedicated cycle facilities.
  • Publicly highlighting safety problems for cyclists in an attempt to get improvements, when the net effect may be to increase the general perception of cycling as “dangerous”.
  • Pushing strongly for on-road cycle provision, thus alienating the population who would prefer an off-road environment to cycle on; or vice versa.

The paper itself goes into greater detail about how language reflects (often unintended) bias against “cyclists” — or as I prefer to say, people who ride bicycles.

One of my pet peeves is when people refer to a “bicycle community”, “cyclists”, or “bike advocates” as one, homogenous, definable block of people. As if we are all friends and we hang out in some basement plotting our next move. “It can be simple descriptions like this that can subtly serve to question the rights of those who cycle,” Koorey writes, “Humans, by nature, like to group similar people together, especially when trying to discredit them (e.g. “Asian drivers”, “Muslim terrorists”). A more objective way to deal with this is to refer to the activity rather than the people… When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists”.”

And with this, Koorey recommends one of the major principles in my approach to language use: use the verb “cycling” whenever possible, instead of a noun like “cyclist”. By taking the human identifier out of the equation and focusing on the activity, you make it more difficult to attach bias to the subject. I do this a lot when I write about “pedestrian” issues (I put it in quotes, because I don’t like to ever use that word). Instead of “pedestrian advocates” or “bike/ped projects” — two very common terms in the advocacy/DOT worlds — I will substitute the word “walking” whenever possible. For example, someone who works to make walking safer and more pleasant is “someone who cares about walking” or a “walking advocate” — not a “pedestrian advocate”.

Koorey’s paper is full of other important thinking about the words we use and why we should consider using other ones. “Vulnerable road user”, a common term here in Oregon because he have a law named after it, perpetuates what Koorey calls the “dangerisation” of cycling. Instead, he prefers “active transportation user”.

In my opinion, Koorey’s paper touches on just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to re-thinking our language use. I am constantly learning and understanding more about this topic each day as I try to communicate about cycling and its role in our society and the transportation debates we often find ourselves in.

I have gotten a lot of interesting feedback when I share my feelings on this topic. Some people are initially skeptical, but after keeping an open mind they see the value in taking this stuff seriously. I’ve even had a public information officer at the Portland Police Bureau call me to help proofread a press release because he knew how important the topic was. But there are also folks who think this whole thing is much ado about nothing and get upset at me for even suggesting that the words we use matter.

And it’s not an exact science. There are not hard-and-fast rules about which words to use when to use them. It’s simply about respect and consciousness for how words impact our ability to make change and have productive conversations.

I highly recommend checking out Goorey’s paper (PDF). Another good one sent to me by the same reader is a 2010 paper by Russel Greig titled, Limitations on the use of the term ‘cyclist’ to describe people who ride bicycles (PDF).