Vulnerable Humans and Victim-Blaming

If you scour the internet, you’ll find a quote that is attributed to Gandhi.  It goes something like this:

The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.

Other websites will refute that Gandhi ever made this statement, but they will quote a speech he made in 1931, where he said:

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.

Along similar lines, Hubert Humphrey, former VP of the USA, stated:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

When I read quotes like this, I think about the most vulnerable people in our society: Children, senior citizens, handicapped people, minorities.  I also think about how we, as a society, move from one place to another.  There are those among us who drive motorized vehicles (or car share/Uber etc.) for any trip.  Others, out of necessity or choice, will travel by public transit (where available).  Others will travel by bicycle or on foot.

From this list of how humans travel, which humans are the most vulnerable?

I found a reference online that states:

A group of road users can be defined as ‘vulnerable’ in a number of ways, such as by the amount of protection in traffic (e.g. pedestrians and cyclists) or by the amount of task capability (e.g. the young and the elderly). Vulnerable road users do not usually have a protective ‘shell’, and also the difference in mass between the colliding opponents is often an important factor. Vulnerable road users can be spared by limiting the driving speed of motorized vehicles and separating unequal road user types as much as possible.

From a cycling perspective, this implies that cyclists are among the most vulnerable road users.

But in our culture, there’s an entitlement that comes with owning and driving a motorized vehicle.  At my place of work, we have “health and safety moments” where before each meeting someone can speak up about an issue relating to health and/or safety.  One week, someone said that in winter when roads are slippery, someone could jump out in front of your car.  If this happens a night, you might not see them.  So the recommendation was: wear bright clothing and don’t run across the road at night if roads are slippery.  There was no mention about driving more cautiously and in control (until I added a comment).

The media doesn’t help.  Somewhere along the way, our mindset has turned to victim-blaming.  You see it in sexual assault cases (“What was she wearing?”; “How much did she have to drink?”…).  You also see it in crashes that involve a cyclist or pedestrian: “Was he/she wearing a helmet?”; “Were they paying attention at that cross-walk”?; “They should have been wearing brighter clothing?”. has an article about victim-blaming in the media here.  There are good examples (plus a few I’ve found elsewhere):

  • Bicyclist Struck, Killed By Car Near Palo Alto.
  • Friends Remember Cyclist Killed In Tulsa Truck Accident
  • Des Plaines woman, 66, dies when bicycle collides with car in Aurora
  • Cyclist seriously injured after being struck by car in Weston

What are the common themes in these headlines? In each case, there’s a human who is a vulnerable road user: “bicyclist”, “cyclist”, “woman”.  However, also in each case, the less-vulnerable human in the motorized vehicle isn’t even mentioned.  Also notice the use of the passive voice in the sentences such as: “… struck by car…”.  This kind of language places responsibility on the more vulnerable human in a not-so-subtle act of victim blaming because it fails to acknowledge the fact that the “car” or “truck” was operated by a human.

You’d never read “man shot by gun” or “victim was stabbed four times by a knife”.  There’s an action that is missing from these headlines.

So I’ve corrected these headlines should be re-written in the active voice:

  • Driver of a car strikes and kills cyclist.
  • Friends remember cyclist who was killed by the driver of a truck in Tulsa
  • Driver of a car crashes into and kills a woman, 66, from Des Plaines
  • Driver of a car crashes into and injures cyclist in Weston

In short, here are a few tips (please add more in the comments section!):

For the media:  (1) don’t use the word “accident”, (2) avoid passive voice, (3) humanize the driver of the motorized vehicle.

For city planners: (1) don’t design roads where cars can drive 80 or 100 km/h and put up a 50 km/hr speed limit sign, (2) all neighbourhood streets should have a speed limit of 30 km/h (3) cycling infrastructure: a network of bike lanes.

For drivers: (1) be smart and respectful; you’re driving a 2000 pound piece of metal at high speeds.  You’re protected but others around you are not.  Cyclists and pedestrians are humans, just like you.

(side note: My home in Waterloo is on a suburban street – just down the street from a K-8 school. Right in front of the school, there’s a speed hump and a School Zone sign.  Just past the school driveway, there’s a sign that says 40 km/h zone ENDS!  This implies the speed limit goes back up to 50 km/h???  There’s a turn ahead in this photo.  Lots of cars parked on the street.  50 is way too fast!)


2 thoughts on “Vulnerable Humans and Victim-Blaming

  1. Great article Steve. It always amazes me when the news reports whether a cyclist was wearing a helmet when hit by a car. It’s as if a helmet would have made things better.


  2. A driver hit and nearly killed me once when I was riding my bicycle, so much of what you’ve written resonates with me. That said, my commute these days involves a mix of walking, cycling, and driving in one of Canada’s largest cities. Public transportation and cycling infrastructure here is excellent compared to other cities where I have lived and worked. I know many young people who choose not to have a driver’s license and never learned how to drive because owning a car is expensive and inconvenient. The problem with this is that learning how to drive is the only time that we formally learn the rules of the road. Whether you’re driving, cycling, or walking, we all have a responsibility to share the road. Accidents and injuries happen when someone does not follow or respect these rules. As a previously “cyclist struck” victim, I am extremely cautious and conscientious when I am behind the wheel of my 2000 pound piece of metal. But the reality is, in a car, windshield glass reduces my ability to see, metal supports create blind spots, and the noise of my vehicle reduces my ability to hear. I am a good driver; I am aware of these impairments and I do my best to minimize their effects. But last week a 30 year old man ran across a crosswalk in front of my car because he was trying to catch a bus. I had a green light; he had a red “do not walk” sign. What he did was illegal, and the choices he made came from the same place that causes drivers to speed: a desire to reduce his “ETA” by a few minutes. Had I hit him, the news headline and the history of his presenting illness in hospital would have been the same: “pedestrian struck.” I am grateful it was a clear, sunny morning. Had he been wearing black and jaywalking in the rain, the outcome likely would have been different. I am a good driver: my car has well maintained brakes and bright headlights. I am a good cyclist: my bike has a bell and bright head and tail lights. I am a good pedestrian: I wear bright clothes, I move predictably, and I only cross when I have a walk sign. Why? Because I know what it is like to drive, bike, and walk in my city and because of this, I understand the need to share the road. Sharing means knowing the rules and following them. I agree, we have an infrastructure problem and there are lots of places in my city where the rules are unclear. I agree with all your recommendations for the media, for city planners, and for drivers. I agree that the system privelages drivers and we have a long way to go to make the system of sharing the road equally safe for all. But let’s not keep passing responsibility from one party to another in a cyclists vs. drivers game of thrones. Let’s all take responsibility for our part in sharing the road by learning the rules and following them, whatever your mode of transportation.

    TL;DR: victim blaming gets us nowhere. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians have an equal responsibility when it comes to sharing the road which means learning and following the rules of the road. Recommendations for cyclists and pedestrians should be included in this post alongside those for the media, city planners, and drivers because cyclists and pedestrians, while certainly the most vulnerable road users, can be responsible for accidents as well.


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