Reviewing Tampa Bay Times stories about crashes involving
bicycles from approximately June 2019-2020 reveals a common litany of problems:
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
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.
crashes by indicating that a vehicle hit the vulnerable road user instead of
the driver of that vehicle
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.
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”?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.