Tim (littlebluedog) wrote,


Yesterday in Portland, a 19-year old woman died when her bike collided with a cement truck.

She was apparently in the bike lane to the right of the truck when the light turned green. She rode straight. The driver executed a right turn.

As I'm writing this, it's not clear where the blame lies. The driver, because he should have checked for bikers prior to turning, but didn't? The biker, for pulling up alongside, into his blind spot, while he was stopped? Was his turn signal on?

The BikePortland blog has been covering the story and reporting developments, and despite the (current) lack of facts indicating culpability, a disturbing majority of the comments express disbelief and even outrage that no citation has yet been issued to the driver.

Most of the bias is likely due to the blog's cyclist readership, but I find it unsettling that so many are so comfortable assuming that the driver was to blame, and so outspoken in their indignation that he is not being punished. As if the man won't be troubled by this for the rest of his life even if blameless.

A ghost bike was installed near the scene last night, which included a sign (which I understand is standard) that reads


Maybe my perspective is a skewed from the aforementioned discomfort with the apparent eagerness to presume the driver's fault, but I have a semantic problem with this, especially in light of the first comment on the BikePortland post reporting the appearance of the ghost bike:
People, y'all should watch the syntax. Using the passive voice and saying things like "a cyclist was killed" diverts blame and hides the true nature of the incident: which is that a car killed a cyclist.
"Killed," no matter how broadly or neutrally the word may be construed, almost unavoidably connotes that someone (not some thing) intentionally caused someone else's death. It may even carry a nuanced suggestion that the victim shared no blame. And regardless of whether this wording was chosen with this bias in mind or not, that is the message sent. Not that there was an accident here, not that a cyclist died, but that someone else, someone driving a motor vehicle, is to blame for it.

But what is gained by sending this particular message? We're all diminished by the loss, especially when the known circumstances generate such sympathy, independent of assignation of fault: She was a budding art student, on errands during her lunch break, returning to campus. She had a boyfriend, a family, friends, and an incredible future that was snuffed out in a second on a rainy October afternoon. Do we need the additional, passive, almost pious implication that the driver caused this? That the driver killed her? Does this somehow strengthen the reminder that every participant in traffic needs to look out for everyone else?

More importantly, do we need to reinforce the uselessly adversarial nature of the interaction between motorized and human-powered vehicles when we memorialize the tragedy?

I don't think so. And I don't think anything is lost by using a different word, except maybe the possibility that by making the suggestion, cyclists will feel as if they can continue as they were, that the problem isn't theirs to share, they don't need to exercise any more caution than they did before, they're not responsible for it.

Why not, simply, "A CYCLIST DIED HERE."

Factual, neutral, stark, solemn. A cyclist died. She died in traffic. Yes, maybe it was a driver's fault, or the cyclist's, or both, maybe it could have been prevented, but we--as a cooperating community of motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, etc.--all need to exercise greater caution in similar circumstances so this can be avoided the next time it comes up.
Tags: biking

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