How We Talk About Drivers Hitting Cyclists

What the media gets wrong, and why, says a lot about how our society views vulnerable road users

From Outside Magazine
By Joe Lindsey

Photo credit: Eliza Southwood

Maria “Triny” Willerton was on a final course recon for last year’s Ironman in Boulder, Colorado, when things literally went sideways. It was a sunny, calm weekday morning in early May—“a perfect day to ride,” she says—and the 46-year-old triathlete was travelling east on Nelson Road, a straight, treeless rural route roughly nine miles north of town. After signaling with her arm, she started to turn left onto North 65th Avenue, a quiet stretch of pavement where she would be able to worry less about traffic. She never made it.

Midturn, “I bounced off the grill of a brand-new Ford F-150,” she recalled. “I flew through the air and landed on the westbound shoulder.” According to a story that ran later that day in the local newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, Willerton made her turn in front of the driver, Stephen Gray, then 62, who was traveling in the same direction and hit her from behind. Willerton never lost consciousness, but she suffered six broken ribs, a triple pelvic fracture, chipped teeth, and a collapsed lung, among other injuries.

It’s an all too familiar story for many cyclists. Hardly a week goes by without an article about a crash in which a driver hits and kills a rider. There is no national-level data on how many cyclists are injured in such crashes in the U.S., but in 2017 (the last full year for which we have data), 783 were killed on the roads—continuing the upward trend of the past decade. Amid an all-time high of vehicle miles traveled, pedestrian and motorcyclist deaths were also at all-time highs, even as fatalities among car occupants have dropped by more than 30 percent over the last 25 years.

Almost as troubling as the rise in deaths is the media coverage of these crashes. It’s hard to say whether tensions between drivers and cyclists are worse than ever, or if it just seems that way because of social media. News stories often play a key role in shaping public understanding of traffic safety. And when news stories victim-blame or fail to convey the larger context in which these crashes take place, they do deep injustice to the victims and the conversation about road safety in general.

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