Why You Shouldn’t Trust Media Coverage That Blames Pedestrians for Getting Struck

When a speeding driver severely injured 14-year-old Kelly Williams, police and the local media blamed her.
When a speeding driver severely injured 14-year-old Kelly Williams, police and the local media blamed her.

When a driver struck a 14-year-old girl in a crosswalk outside her Philadelphia-area high school last week, the local media pounced. Headlines highlighted police accounts that said the victim, Kelly Williams, was using FaceTime on her phone at the time of the crash.

Here’s how the local CBS affiliate led its story:

A 14-year-old girl was injured Wednesday afternoon in Abington when police say she walked right into the path of a passing car — because she was video chatting.

The implications were clear: Williams was at fault. She was irresponsible. No need to give any thought to how the driver’s actions contributed to the collision.

Local police went on to lecture people about the dangers of distraction while walking. “I just hope people will realize the dangers of being engrossed in your cellphone, or your tablet, or whatever you’re carrying, and not paying attention to what you’re doing,” said Abington Police Chief John Livingston.

A week later, Williams is still in the hospital recovering from severe injuries. And a very different account of what happened is emerging.

According to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the man who struck Williams, James H. Clark IV, 32, was driving 21 mph over the speed limit — 46 in a 25 mph zone. In addition, she was “half way across a marked crosswalk” at an unsignalized intersection when she was struck — entirely in the legal right-of-way.

The driver told police he was in a hurry, glanced at his watch, looked up and saw a flash, hitting Williams. He is being charged with “reckless endangerment” and assault, and law enforcement is belatedly sending a much better message.

“Distracted driving and speed are a deadly combination,” District Attorney Kevin Steele told the Inquirer. “Drivers owe it to the community and to our young people to exercise extra caution and pay special attention to their surroundings in and around our schools.”

Still, why was the original account so wrong? Rather than wait until all the facts were gathered, police and local TV stations chose to assign blame to a gravely injured child. Wagging your finger at kids for using FaceTime must make for good ratings.

Leonard Bonarek at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia says this kind of reporting is far too common when a driver hits a pedestrian:

The coverage of 6ABC.com is unfortunately quite common in the media: implying that a 14-year-old who was walking exactly where she was supposed to be walking, in an area that most have been trained since before they can remember to believe is “safe,” was at fault for the tragedy. Many youth today don’t watch broadcast TV, and evening news viewership trends older every year, but treating this tragedy as a “kids these days” type of story does considerable disservice to our public discourse, while also causing additional pain to a family that must be suffering tremendously, and to a youth who may never fully recover from this incident.

More recommended reading today: The City Fix shares new research showing the productivity advantage of urban density, as well as how housing and transportation policy can ensure the benefits are broadly distributed. And the State Smart Transportation Initiative explains a new report that attempts to draw a clear distinction between the kind of congestion that helps cities and the kind that damages them.

  • my eyes are hungry

    When is the last time a car had to swerve out of danger and then crash into something or someone else? Quite often.

    When is the last time someone hit someone or something that was not their fault, then had to live with that guilt for a long time? Quite often.

  • KJ

    Yes, however, I am concerned about the 85th percentile being used on rural highways as these roads often have pedestrians, bicyclists, equestrians, wildlife, etc. This is particularly a problem on winding mountains roads here in California (and other states!) where the speeds really need to be closer to 15-20 mph.

  • Joe R.

    I share your concern but I think reducing speed limits to 15 or 20 mph on large sections of rural highways would be problematic. A better solution is to reduce speeds near crossings with heavy pedestrian traffic and physically separate cyclists and other road users from faster traffic via barrier-protected lanes. My rationale here is travel distances in rural areas are typically much longer than in cities. Reducing speeds from, say, 55 mph down to 15 or 20 mph could triple travel times (and hence would be met with strong public resistance). It’s actually common in the Netherlands to see a nice path paralleling a high-speed rural road:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2014/04/is-that-shared-use-path-do-dutch-cycle.html

    The fourth picture from the top shows a protected bike path running alongside an 80 km/hr (50 mph) road.

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