Those who would ban us from our vehicles have become skillful manipulators of language and emotion.
We were reminded of this after reading an op-ed in Philly.com by a former City of Philadelphia transportation official calling for more Vision Zero-style “safety” interventions in the City of Brotherly Love.
In an article decrying how dangerous the streets are for non-motorized users, it’s interesting that the writer, Andrew Stober, doesn’t mention the word “accident” once. (More on this in a minute.) He does, however, use the phrase “traffic violence” four times—the word violence carefully chosen to imply that certain behavior behind the wheel is intended to cause harm to others.
Of course any assertion, even indirect, that motorists deliberately target other road users is absurd, and Stober knows it. No matter. He says it because he wants other people to believe it.
And Stober isn’t afraid to double down on his main premise. He repeatedly equates traffic accidents (our term) to gun violence: “The Philadelphia Police Department has been focused on violent crime for nearly a decade, and the results have been remarkable. But the police must work to reduce traffic violence as well as gun violence.”
He goes on to say that the police “could begin reporting traffic crashes that result in an injury or fatality within 24 hours, much as homicides and shootings are reported now.” Stober never explains how this would have helped the accident victims he mentions in the piece, nor does he acknowledge that any of those victims could have been at least partially responsible for the accidents they were involved in.
Not surprising since a key tenet of Vision Zero is that pedestrians and cyclists can never be at fault in an accident—a theory that advocates for those groups actively promote. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to a NYC Department of Transportation study, pedestrians have at least some culpability in nearly half of the citywide accidents in which there are pedestrian fatalities.
The twisted logic that lets certain road users off the hook for their own safety is akin to another fallacy the VZ crowd is pushing: that there is no such thing as a traffic accident. It’s traffic violence or a traffic crash, but never an accident. Because to call it that would be to admit that bad things can happen for no reason and that the perpetrator of the act (always the driver) might escape punishment. Here’s how one blogger described this reframing:
Many publications and individual members of the press, including myself, have become more mindful of the way we write about traffic deaths and injuries, using language that acknowledges the role of the driver and moving away from the word “accident,” with its fatalistic implications.
Later in the piece she provides this bit of psychoanalysis:
I think we routinely use language to distance ourselves from the idea that drivers in fatal crashes are killers, because we know that means we could be killers, too. We’re protecting ourselves from the brutal reality that all too quickly, we ourselves could be the ones making an error in judgment, losing control, and destroying people’s lives.
Did you catch that? “Drivers in fatal crashes are killers.” There’s nothing more to be said. And she’s not alone in that opinion. Some quick Google searching will return many similar articles.
So this is what we’re up against, and the VZ crowd will not stop. They understand the first two lessons of propaganda all too well: First, tell a big lie. And second, tell it often enough so people will start to believe it.