Fallacy Often Prevails in the World of Crash Reporting

By Eddie Wren

Executive Director of Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.

March 14, 2005

Two completely separate media reports within the past 24 hours, from the USA and Australia respectively, highlight the fact that speculation and inaccurate comments can play a large part in undermining road safety standards.

First, from America, came a story about a man who died in the early hours of the morning when his car ran off the road on a curve and overturned, and police officers at the scene said the man had probably fallen asleep at the wheel.

Oh, really?

It is possible, of course, that the man did fall asleep at the wheel but if law enforcement officers are to make such a decisive observation, in that short time, must we presume that — for example — qualified engineers had fully stripped down the car to check for any pre-crash mechanical failure in the steering system, suspension, or elsewhere? Or that any deflated tire(s) had been examined at a forensic laboratory to determine whether that deflation caused a crash or was caused by the crash, perhaps? Or that an eyewitness had been found who stated that no animal had run in front of the car and caused the driver to swerve? Or whether the presence of another vehicle had anything to do with the incident? And what about the possibility of it having been, say, a heart attack rather than falling asleep?

There is a long list of possibilities, so the habit of some law enforcement officers to speculate or pontificate about the cause of crashes, prior to full scene and vehicle examinations and the skilled interviewing of any witnesses, is highly undesirable and may even have a damaging effect on subsequent inquests, court cases or insurance settlements. Such investigations — which should be inevitable for all fatal crashes — require officers with specialist training, and collectively these tasks generally takes days or even weeks, not just the presence of probably a non-specialized officer at a crash scene for an hour or two, unless the matter is entirely beyond any reasonable doubt (such as — say — a tree falling right on top of a moving car, or something else which extraordinarily takes the matter right out of the hands of any person involved in the incident).

None-the-less, in some countries such speculation by police officers is commonplace, and seemingly they are allowed to get away with it by their senior officers.

The second story, from Australia, concerned the case of an obviously well liked and respected lady who was killed when “her car failed to negotiate a curve and veered off the road and into [a] river.”

As sad as this event undoubtedly is, one must again ask: Oh, really?

Unless there is a provable and unpredictable mechanical failure then it has to be said that it is not a vehicle that fails to negotiate a bend, it is the driver. Even if a road is covered in sheet ice, it is the driver’s responsibility to be aware of that possibility and to drive accordingly.

As with the above case, it is possible that this driver did fall asleep at the wheel and crashed as a result, but once more that is just one of several possibilities.

And in this case the journalist deserves a degree of disdain whatsoever for his/her reporting skills.

If, in the longer term, journalists wish to play their part in helping to combat the sickeningly high number of people killed in road crashes, they might wish to phrase their reports with almost pedantic accuracy rather than seeking to generate excessive anger or sadness, or even — as in this case — appearing to shift the blame onto an inanimate object.

We all know that journalists like to spice up their stories for maximum readability. It is the nature of their job. But in cases like this it can be irresponsible and potentially dangerous to drivers or future drivers who choose to believe that a “driver was not to blame.”

This lady’s car left the road at a curve — period. The driver failed to negotiate the bend and as implied above it is always possible that a detailed investigation might reveal that she did so because of sudden illness, or some other explicable cause.

Factual, non-speculative accuracy in reporting crashes is an extremely important element in helping to combat the rate of future casualties, whether in the case of police officers making comments to the press, or journalists drafting articles.

See also the research report: Human Error in Road Accidents