Health

No, Shawn Bradley Wasn’t Paralyzed in a ‘Bicycle Accident’

You would think that it would be impossible for a driver to not see and avoid a 7-foot-6 man on a bicycle.

But that’s exactly what happened on January 20, when a driver in a car hit Shawn Bradley, one of the tallest basketball players in NBA history, while he was riding a bike just a block from his home in St. George, Utah. The resulting spinal cord injury paralyzed Bradley, according to a press release published on March 17 from his former team, the Dallas Mavericks.

Adding literal insult to injury was the way the news media covered it:

“Former BYU Cougar, Dallas Maverick Shawn Bradley Paralyzed Following Bicycling Accident”The Salt Lake Tribune

“Former NBA Center Shawn Bradley Paralyzed As Result of Bike Accident” — ESPN

“Former NBA Player Shawn Bradley Paralyzed in Utah Bike Accident”The Boston Globe

“Ex-NBA Center Shawn Bradley Paralyzed In Cycling Accident” — NBA.com

You get the idea.

Using the word “accident” implies that the situation could not have been prevented. However, that is often not the case when it comes to drivers in cars hitting cyclists. “Crash” is a better choice than “accident” because it’s a simple factual statement of what happened.

Additionally, if the cause of the crash is named, it’s often blamed on an inanimate object—the car—rather than the operator who is, presumably, in control. Reading those headlines, you’d think Bradley got a little too rowdy railing drops on the Zen Trail near his St. George home. Forget that another person driving a car inflicted this injury on him.

Credit to a few other outlets that did indicate that, yes, another party was involved:

“Former Dallas Maverick Shawn Bradley Paralyzed After Car Hit His Bike, Team Says” — CNN

“Ex-Dallas Mavericks center Shawn Bradley, 48, paralyzed after a car crashed into his bicycle in Utah” — CBS Sports

These are closer, but still not quite there. While we cyclists clearly love our bicycles, it’s more likely that Bradley would just be very, very sad that a car hit his bike—not grievously injured.

Simply put, the media missed an opportunity for a slam dunk with its headlines and stories on the news, and similarly missed a chance to begin to right a long-running wrong against the cycling community. As Henry Grabar wrote for Slate, “A child falling off his bike in the park is a bicycle accident … Getting rammed from behind by a car is not a bicycle accident.” And yet, for decades, media reports have used this framing when reporting on cyclists who are hit by drivers and injured or killed.

The contortions required to distance the driver’s actions become clear when you try to transfer that framing to other actions. We don’t say, “A bullet hit a person” or even, “A gun shot a person.” It’s: “A man shot a person with a gun.” A gun is an object, not an agent.

Or, as Travis Eby memorably put it on Twitter:

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In early 2019, a team of researchers from Rutgers, Arizona State University, and Texas A&M published research on how the media reports on traffic crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians—so-called vulnerable road users. They analyzed 200 reports of such crashes, and found “accident” was the most commonly used word in referring to these crashes. Some 80 percent of the time, the story subtly shifted blame, by eliding the driver’s role and using passive phrasing like, “a cyclist was hit.”

“‘Accident’ conveys inevitability,” Tara Goddard, one of the study authors, told me for a story I wrote for Outside about media coverage of crashes. “You can trace virtually every crash to something upstream, whether human error, poor street design, or something else. Almost every crash is preventable.”

This is not a new way of thinking. In 2001, the British Medical Journal banned the word “accident” from papers because it ignored agency. The Transportation Alternatives “Crash Not Accident” campaign began in 2015. And the Associated Press, whose stylebook is the usage guide of record for hundreds of media organizations, formally cautioned against the use of “accident” back in 2016. But the habit persists.

The problem is that words matter. Media often rely on initial crash reports from law enforcement for their stories. But as I pointed out in my Outside story, those reports are very often incomplete; a victim’s statement often isn’t taken at the scene. And of course, if the victim is dead, none is ever taken. So those early reports are flawed and blame is rarely, or incorrectly, assigned.

Take the case of Dan Hanegby, the first-ever rider to die while riding a Citibike. The initial reports alleged that he had swerved into the path of a charter bus. Only later did video evidence show that the driver had failed to yield (the driver was convicted, although sentenced to just 30 days in jail).

And those stories form the framework for the public to understand what happened in these crashes. In a follow-up study, Goddard and her co-researchers, Kelcie Ralph, Evan Iacobucci, and Calvin Thigpen randomly assigned participants to read one of three stories about a crash. Readers of the version that used the correct language of “crash,” was driver-focused, and used thematic framing—citing road design and the larger trend of pedestrian fatalities—were four times as likely to understand that the crash has multiple causes and wasn’t the pedestrian’s fault.

Thematic framing is also essential. Some of the stories about Bradley’s crash gamely noted that, in the wake of his crash, Bradley is campaigning for bicycle safety. And that’s great, except the media is screwing it up—again.

Deseret News columnist Dick Harmon wrote a piece about Bradley’s campaign, and asks a cyclist (not Bradley) for advice. But the whole story is about what cyclists can do, and what they need to know. It’s not until the very end that Harmon allows, almost as an aside, that drivers need to be aware and pay attention too. Bradley didn’t cause the crash; he was run over from behind, in broad daylight, because someone failed to see one of the tallest humans on earth.

This isn’t hard. Context and understanding are a quick Google search away for stories like mine, or studies like Goddard’s and Ralph’s. And yet, time after time, media outlets opt for simplistic, flawed framing that distorts public understanding by shifting blame, which in turn hurts the cycling community. It’s almost like they are avoiding facing what—or rather, who—is responsible for these terrible crashes. And that seems like no accident.

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