November 20, 2004

A man stopped on I-74, someone rear-ended him, a semi saw the accident, and then...

A few days ago, Phil Dennison complained about some cases where "journalists go out of their way to avoid statements of fact". The example that got his attention was a WaPo story about teen drinking and traffic deaths in Montgomery County, which included the picture caption "Sarkis George Nazarian Jr., 16, was killed when the SUV he was driving hit a tree."

Phil objects that "the SUV didn't do anything independently of the person driving it", and argues that the caption should read "Sarkis George Nazarian Jr., 16, died [not 'was killed'] when he drove his SUV into a tree."

Phil cites some other examples of a similar sort from the same paper, and asks

Is this common in other news outlets when reporting on vehicle crashes? Why? Even if they feel the need to include an “apparently” or an “allegedly,” why not attribute the action to the driver rather than the vehicle?

There's a simple answer to the narrow version of this question: for a newspaper to say that "so-and-so drove his vehicle into a tree" would suggest a degree of intent that is lacking when a drunk teenager loses control of a vehicle on a slippery back road at night.

But Dennison is asking a larger and more interesting question about reference to people and their vehicles, as well as about attributions of agency in the case of "accidents". We often talk about people when we mean cars ("I'm parked around the corner") and cars when we mean people ("the BMW swerved to avoid the pothole"). And this is especially true in the case of traffic accidents, where the action is usually described in terms of the vehicles involved, and the people are mentioned mainly as victims acted on by the vehicles and other relevant objects.

There seem to be several reasons. One is that it is usually unclear what the causal sequence really was, and what role human intentions played in it. Consider this report from today's news in Australia:

(link) The man received serious head and facial injuries when the monkey bike he was riding and a taxi collided at the corner of Chesterville and Wickham roads, Moorabbin, about 11.35pm (AEDT) yesterday.

There was a collision between a taxi and a miniature replica motorcycle (known as a "monkey bike"); the motorcyclist was seriously hurt. Did the cyclist steer his bike into the taxi on purpose? Probably not. Did he do something irreponsible that contributed to the accident? It's not clear. Was the taxi driver speeding? The article doesn't raise the issue. The available fact is just that a collision happened. If the police and the courts and the people involved are not saying anything about human agency in a routine traffic accident, there's not a lot of scope for a reporter to speculate, and an impersonal description of what happened to the vehicles may be the only reasonable option.

A second reason for attributing actions to vehicles rather than people, even when talking about perceptions and intentions, is that the vehicles may be more salient in our mental picture of the event than the people are. Consider this quoted description of a recent multi-vehicle accident in Indiana:

(link) Hendricks County Sheriff Jim Quearry explains what happened, "A car was stopped on the westbound lane of I-74 just west of Brownsburg. Another car rear-ended that car. It sort of caused a chain reaction. A semi tractor trailer saw the accident and was slowing to avoid it and he was rear-ended by another semi trailer. The second semi trailer hit an SUV prior to hitting the first semi trailer. That SUV was knocked off the interstate and down the embankment and the driver of that vehicle was killed. The driver of the second semi was pinned in his vehicle. He was cut out of that by various fire departments."

Some of these events seem to to have been more-or-less ballistic interactions among very large objects moving fast ("that SUV was knocked off the interstate and down the embankment") rather than anything controlled by humans. But even when human perception and action are at issue, Sherriff Quearry talks about the vehicles rather than the people ("a semi tractor trailer saw the accident and was slowing to avoid it"). This may be because at the time of the quote, Sherriff Quearry apparently didn't yet know the names of the people involved, but I suspect that even if he had known who they were, his description would have focused on the vehicles.

A third reason for metonymic confusions between people and their vehicles seems to be a preference for descriptive (and perhaps conceptual) simplicity. If person X is behind the wheel of vehicle Y, and vehicle Y comes to a halt, it's easier to say simply that X stopped or that Y did, rather than to say that X brought Y to a stop, even if that's what happened. And of course if the causal chain is murky (the car ran out of gas, or the driver fell asleep), then there's another reason to keep it simple.

Consider the descriptions in another story on the same Indiana accident. In the lede, it's the driver who stopped:

A 35-year-old Indianapolis man was arrested on drunken-driving charges today after authorities say he came to a virtual halt on I-74 in Hendricks County, causing a chain-reaction crashed that killed another motorist.

But a few paragraphs later, it's the car that stopped:

Sheriff's Capt. Brett Clark said the wreck apparently was caused by a car that stopped in the middle of the highway and was struck by another vehicle.

This contrast seems to involve both uncertain agency and relative salience or focus. The drunk driver may have passed out or fallen asleep. In this case, it seems appropriate for the lede to say that he "came to a virtual halt", since it's not so clear that he "brought his car to a virtual halt" or that he "almost stopped his car" or whatever, since such phrases suggest a degree of control or intentionality that may have been lacking. I guess the reporter could have written "after his car came to a virtual halt on I-74", but the focus is on the driver at that point.

When we get to the quote from Capt. Clark in the 6th graf, the focus is on the dynamics of the accident, and so the description shifts to the vehicles. It then shifts to the people again as the deaths and injuries come into the picture:

Sheriff's Capt. Brett Clark said the wreck apparently was caused by a car that stopped in the middle of the highway and was struck by another vehicle. Behind that collision, a semi slowed and was hit from the rear by Rhoades' sport utility vehicle, which was then struck by a second semi.

Rhoades was killed in that secondary collision when the vehicle left the road and struck a post, Clark said. [emphasis added]

The other most serious injury was to Robert N. Fox, 47, of Sumner, Iowa. He was driving one of the semi-tractor trailers. He suffered a broken leg, cuts and lacerations over the majority of his body.

The sentence in bold is quite similar to the picture caption that bothered Phil Dennison ("Sarkis George Nazarian Jr., 16, was killed when the SUV he was driving hit a tree"). I surmise that Phil was annoyed by the failure of the caption writer to assign responsibility, and it's easy to sympathize with his reaction.

In the case of the Indiana accident, the unfortunate SUV driver seems to have had no culpable role whatever in the causal chain that led to her death. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, driving along I-74 when a chain-reaction accident caused two large trucks to hit her vehicle and force it off the road into a post. So her vehicle "struck a post", she didn't drive it into a post; and she "was killed", though she also "died", right?

But in the case of the Montgomery County teen DUI death, even though it was a single-vehicle accident, the driver's immediate agency is not obvious. The WaPo story makes it clear that this wasn't vehicular suicide -- Nazarian didn't intend to steer his SUV into a tree. He was driving at 1:30 a.m. on "a rain-slicked two-lane road", after leaving a party where the police found "the remnants of 12-packs and 30-packs", and "the 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee he was driving slid off Travilah Road and hit a tree." So he was apparently drunk, perhaps driving too fast, and lost control of the vehicle on a dark, slippery and winding road.

It's fair to feel that Nazarian bears more responsibility for what happened than Rhoades did. But the immediate sequences leading up to the two fatal impacts were similar: both drivers were behind the wheel of an SUV sliding out of control off a road and into an obstruction.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 20, 2004 09:17 AM