Reviewing Tampa Bay Times stories about crashes involving bicycles from approximately June 2019-2020 reveals a common litany of problems:
- The use of phrases and language that implies cyclists’ culpability in most crashes, even though nationwide, studies have shown that most car/bike crashes are the fault of motorists
- Relying solely on police reports and press releases and law enforcement statements that cannot be verified or are themselves often biased or unknowable at the time of the initial investigation.
- De-personalizing crashes by indicating that a vehicle hit the vulnerable road user instead of the driver of that vehicle
- And often, there is no follow-up, so your readers are left with the initial impressions—and biases—of the investigating officer, even if the final investigative reports contradict initial reports.
Example of reporting “facts” with no source:
In a recent report, a drunk driver allegedly hit and killed a cyclist. Romy Ellenbogen reports, “The bicyclist traveled into the path of the car, which hit him.” No source is cited. Even if the investigating officer made the statement, he has no way of knowing this. And the motorist was drunk. Saying the cyclist “traveled into the path” suggests culpability, as if he left his line of travel and swerved in front of the drunk driver. This phrase reoccurs in your bike crash stories. But in this case, there is no attribution of that statement of fact.
Examples of reporting with charged language from law enforcement without questioning how they would know what they said or questioning why it is relevant:
In May 2020, Josh Fiallo reported on a collision between a garbage truck and a cyclist on Gulf Blvd., with this language that reflected a press release from the Pinellas Co. Sheriff’s Dept. PIO: “Julie Henning, of Alexandria, Virginia, couldn’t stop her bike in time from hitting the City of Madeira Beach garbage truck because she was riding downhill, witnesses told deputies.” The fact that the cyclist “couldn’t stop her bike in time” implies she was at least partially culpable, perhaps going too fast downhill. (Speed limit is 35 mph, which I can almost guarantee that the cyclist could not have reached that speed descending that bridge.) The PIO release is unclear in what direction the truck was traveling. But in whatever direction the truck was traveling, the cyclist had the right of way. If the victim had been a motorist, I doubt that TBT would have reported the car “couldn’t stop in time.”
And the lede? “A 44-year-old bicyclist is in critical condition after a garbage truck entered a bike lane on Saturday morning and she struck its passenger side, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said in a release.” That the cyclist struck the vehicle again implies she did something she could have avoided. Maybe the truck cut her off.
Gabrielle Calise reported, “Brian M. Bentz, 57, was heading south on a bicycle in the intersection and entered the path of the truck, troopers said.” The phrase “entered the path of the truck,” language similar to #1, is not knowable, even if the trooper said it. Moreover, it implies the cyclist did something wrong. This happened at an intersection, if the cyclist had the right of way, he may have entered the “path of the truck,” but the motorist may have been at fault for running the red light. Could this have been written, “Vincent A. Givens, 36, driving a 2018 Ford truck east on State Road 60 at St. Cloud Avenue, collided with Brian M. Bentz, 57, who was heading south on a bicycle in the intersection. A state trooper investigating the crash did not indicate who had the right of way”?
I found no follow-up story.
Frank Pastor reported that, “A red 2000 Ford Explorer was headed north on N Parsons Avenue when deputies said the teen rode into the SUV’s path. The driver saw the bicyclist right before impact but did not have enough time to avoid a collision, according to the Sheriff’s Office.” Again, we have no information on who had the right of way or whether the cyclist was in a lane and was hit from behind by the motorist. Obviously, the motorist did not have time to stop, but why? Was the motorist speeding? And the fact that it was a 2000 Ford Explorer adds nothing to the story. Couldn’t it have been written that “A motorist struck and killed Terry Martin, 16, who was riding his bicycle on N Parsons Avenue, just south of Clemons Road. No determination of fault was made by the investigating officer”?
I found no follow-up story.
Chris Tisch reports, “[The cyclist] got to Seminole Boulevard, where he rode into the path of a dump truck driven by Iran D. Manrique-Herna, 54, of Tampa.” Did the cyclist have plenty of time to enter Seminole Blvd. but the truck driver did not see him?
I found no follow-up story.
Chris Tisch reports, “Jayden Relyea of New Port Richey was pedaling a bicycle east on Slidell Road about 7:25 a.m. when the crash occurred. The teen went through the intersection with Moon Lake Road and was hit by a northbound Jeep Wrangler driven by Ann M. Feeney, 61, of New Port Richey, troopers said.” Again, saying the cyclist “went through the intersection” implies he was at fault. Who had the right of way? A statement that it was not reported who had the right of way and that no fault was assigned would be helpful.
I found no follow-up story.
Brandon Meyer reports, “A Homosassa woman riding a bicycle died early Friday after she was hit while crossing the path of a pickup truck on U.S. 19 at New York Avenue, the Florida Highway Patrol said…. Clendennen had a green light and Casson failed to obey a pedestrian control signal or use the marked crosswalk, the Highway Patrol said.”
Given that the victim is dead, how does the officer know the motorist had a green light?
And then there is the infamous phrase used in too many bike crash stories, “Casson was not wearing a helmet.”
I found no follow-up story.
Reporting a crash where a driver hit and killed a cyclist in a marked crosswalk, Caitlin Johnston writes, “Only one of the 10 bicyclists who died was using a bike lane. That collision involved a drunk driver, [Transportation Director Evan] Mory said.”
What is the purpose and relevance of that statement? Without context, it suggests that bicyclists were in the wrong in nine of those crashes because they were not in the bike lanes. Bicyclists have all rights to ride in the travel lane, if there is no bike lane. And even if there is, they needn’t use it if it unsafe to do so.
Yet, here are a couple of examples where TBT reporters duly repeat unverified exculpatory information about motorists:
Brandon Meyer reports, “The driver of the Jeep didn’t stop, though Pinellas sheriff’s investigators said witnesses told them that the driver may not have realized they had hit someone.” How would witnesses come to that conclusion? What facts could that observation be based on? And it is then repeated a couple of paragraphs later: “Witnesses told police that a black Jeep Wrangler with a dark-colored soft-top did not maneuver out of the teen’s path, and added that the driver may not have realized they were involved in a crash.”
It’s also puzzling why this was reported: “The teen was not in a crosswalk at the time of the crash, police said.” Why is this relevant? A cyclist isn’t required to be in a crosswalk.
And again, the victim is to be blamed because, “The teen, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, was taken by helicopter…”
In an otherwise excellent story, Tony Marrero writes, “’It’s likely that Baker didn’t see Weinert,’ [Highway Patrol Sgt.] Gaskins said. “But if Baker had stopped, checked and called for help, he wouldn’t be facing a felony charge that could land him in prison for up to 30 years,’ Gaskins said.” Why do we allow Gaskins to speculate with exculpatory information? How would he know that the driver didn’t see the victim? Again, it’s blaming the victim for putting himself in a position of not being seen.
Not to mention that Gaskins highlights that merely hitting and killing a cyclist is not a big deal as he wouldn’t be in much trouble. That is an issue TBT should explore. Under Florida law, a driver can hit and kill a cyclist and pretty much walk free, unless he was drunk, left the scene, or it can be proven he was driving recklessly. Not carelessly, however. Even if distracted by her cell phone, a driver will only get a ticket and fine. In fact, a driver can simply say, “I didn’t see the cyclist,” and be relieved of any criminal responsibility.
Example of gratuitous victim blaming:
In a story about a memorial ride for a cyclist killed on MLK by a driver who was distracted by his cell phone, Dennis Joyce writes, “Participants were encouraged to wear helmets and white clothing, use bike lanes, stop at lights, and keep a slow pace.” Which all seems to be intended to remind readers that cyclists don’t wear helmets, or use bike lanes, or stop at stop lights and speed. If this were a procession of motorists honoring a victim of a car crash, would you write that? And it’s in the passive voice. Who “encouraged” them?
TBT can do better—and have. Here are well-reported examples of TBT putting bike crashes into context:
Obviously, reporter Marlene Sokol interviewed witnesses and avoided any charged language that implied the pedestrian was at fault.
Christopher O’Donnell obviously did not rely on a law enforcement press release and filed a good report that did not try to assign blame to the victim.
O’Donnell and three other reporters followed up with additional information the next day.
This follow-up by Charlie Frago is welcomed, as it is one of the few stories of such crashes that follow up on the original reporting and provide a larger perspective.
More follow-up by Anastasia Dawson.
I will note that the crash on Bayshore Blvd. in Tampa (all covered in stories #13-16) was of a victim with what researchers call “high social capital,” i.e., a white, upper middle-class man. Research shows such victims are often covered more sympathetically than, for example, lower socio-economic black men.
I would encourage TBT editors to take a few steps:
- Always ask law enforcement agencies if fault was assigned, and if not, to prominently report that.
- To take a more holistic approach to reporting such crashes by not focusing solely on what the cyclist or pedestrian may have done, as it perpetuates the notion that motorists have priority on our streets and that walkers and bike riders are interlopers.
- Personalize stories to include names of victims and motorists and have them take action, instead of referring to the vehicles as taking actions.
- Follow-up fatal and serious injury crashes when the final traffic report is issued.
- Question law enforcement when they seem to make judgement calls or speculate on what might have happened, especially when they use the phrase that the vulnerable road user “entered the path” of a motorist.
You can download a research paper by Bike/Walk Tampa Bay regarding the reporting of bike crashes in the area over the past 10 years.
There is evidence that lately bicycling is increasing greatly, and I fear more lives will be ended or forever altered. We should report their stories in a way that respects their right to be on the road and does not assume that they must be at fault when crashes occur.