8 October 2020

New media reporting guidelines


A set of guidelines on how media organisations should report on road traffic collisions is now open for consultation, including recommending that journalists avoid the word “accident” and use “crash” or “collision” instead, and acknowledge the role of drivers in such incidents.

The draft guidelines have been drawn up by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy following input from representatives of national roads policing, legal, academic and media experts, the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, RoadPeace and Cycling UK.

Supported by active travel and road safety organisations, the draft guidelines seek to establish a standard for broadcasters and publishers reporting on collisions.

All too often crashes are described as “accidents” involving “a car” rather than “a driver” and vulnerable road users sometimes portrayed as being somehow to blame, for instance when it is highlighted that a cyclist was not wearing a helmet.

Guidelines for the media already exist for reporting on issues such as suicide, refugees and children, but not for road traffic collisions despite 1,700 people being killed and thousands more sustaining life-changing injuries on Britain’s roads each year.

The misinterpretation or misrepresentation of such incidents in the press leads to confusion within public debate on the issue, with a knock-on effect on tackling road crime and improving road safety. 

Research shows that how crashes are reported shapes how we think about and respond to them, sometimes in quite problematic ways, so it is crucial that journalists have guidance helping them with current best practice around road collision reporting, as exists for other issues such as suicide and domestic violence.

The four main clauses of the guidelines are as follows:
1.1 Impartiality: Publishers must not use the term accident when describing road collisions – collision, or crash, are more accurate, especially when the facts of the incident are not known
1.2 Discrimination: publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users, and must not use dehumanising language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage
1.3 Accuracy: Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be above all accurate, based in fact and context. Publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision, and avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant
1.4 Reporting on crime: Publishers must avoid portraying dangerous or criminal behaviour on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims.


Guideline 1 - Impartiality

Publishers must not use the term accident when describing road collisions – collision, or crash, are more accurate, especially when the facts of the incident are not known​

1.1 In the words of one roads policing chief “there are very few accidents that are true accidents… all traffic collisions involve some form of misjudgement, error or outright dangerous action by one or more drivers in a collision”

1.2 While in a news story reporting on a collision immediately after a crash, journalists won’t know why a crash took place, using the word ‘accident’ suggests an unavoidable incident – which publishers equally won’t know is true. Reporters must avoid speculation about the cause of an incident, including calling it an accident

1.3 Publishers must at all times remember everyone who uses the road is a human being – and should reflect this in sensitive reporting on road collisions that portrays victims of road danger as, above all else, people. None are ‘more worthy’ than others, regardless of status or job title. In follow-up pieces involving a death or serious injury, it can help humanise a tragedy by focusing on the last moments of a victim’s journey, say, or talking to their relatives and friends about who they were

Guideline 2 - Discrimination

Journalists should not use language that generalises one person’s behaviour as shared by a group of road users or suggest it is indicative of a perceived group’s character traits

2.1 Publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users, and must not use dehumanising language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage

2.2 Dehumanising a person can be defined as depicting them as less than human, and is distinct from dislike or dissimilarity, “it predicts aggressive behaviour and support for hostile policies independently of negative attitudes”. Dehumanising cyclists is associated with increased antisocial behaviour and aggression towards them, such as deliberately driving a vehicle at, or throwing something at them. In turn, those who feel dehumanised are more likely to feel hostile themselves, risking further fuelling aggression on the roads. If in doubt, publishers should consider how jarring, or morally and logically questionable it would seem applying the same assumptions to other perceived groups. The term ‘cyclist’ alone can engender negative connotations, for example; consider characterising someone on a cycle as a person, where possible

2.3 A representative group, or an individual, may bring a complaint under this clause. Language that dehumanises is that which is intended to, or is likely to, provoke hatred or to put a person or group in fear. The disputed words, therefore, must be more than provocative, offensive, hurtful or objectionable: this provision includes, but is not limited to, speech that is likely to cause others to commit acts of violence against members of the group or discriminate against them, for example driving with less care, or greater aggression, towards a perceived group of road users

2.4 Coverage, whether comment, features or news pieces, must not encourage, joke, or make light of injury or danger to other road users, particularly vulnerable road users, or suggest certain road users are an annoyance, aren’t legitimate road users, or should have their lawful activities otherwise curtailed. Research indicates violence on the roads lies on the same continuum as everyday, normalised discrimination tolerated by the public

Guideline 3 - Accuracy

Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be above all accurate, based in fact and context. Publishers should make mention of human actors in a collision, and avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant

3.1 Publishers must, as early as possible in an article, make mention of the presence of the human participants in a collision. If an action or reaction is caused by a person, rather than a driverless vehicle or one whose handbrake failed while parked on a hill, say, mention the presence of a driver, even if their identity is unknown. Cars cannot flee the scene of a collision, flip themselves over or speed without a driver

3.2 The reporting of risk impacts the public’s perception of that risk, and overemphasising the risks of cycling and walking, say, or underestimating the risk caused by poor driving may alter the public’s behaviour in a way that negatively impacts theirs or others’ health

3.3 As with all areas of journalism, reserve scepticism for information, such as statistics and reports, and put numbers and facts into context. Statistics should be accurate and verified, and facts clearly explained with important caveats and limitations explained. Using a range of sources helps provide context so audiences can understand and judge their importance. With road traffic collisions this might mean reference to the scale of collisions nationwide or locally, collision hotspots, road collision statistics, and those most likely to be injured. Where claims from sources are wrong or misleading, they should be challenged

3.4 Except when demonstrably relevant, publishers should avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, and give reasonable consideration to whether inclusion of such detail exaggerates the benefits of such equipment, or amounts to victim blaming in their absence. Helmets are not a legal requirement when cycling in most countries, including the UK, mainly offer protection in low-speed collisions and are not designed to protect against impacts with motor vehicles. Although hi-vis or reflective gear can help make someone more visible, evidence shows it does not make drivers more careful around the wearer. Suggesting cyclists be made to wear a helmet, carry a registration plate, or hold insurance should be avoided, as measures that are more likely to put people off cycling than improve road safety

3.5 In collisions publishers must avoid use of passive voice, such as ‘a pedestrian was hit’. Say instead ‘a driver/vehicle hit a pedestrian’. People or objects don’t simply get hit by vehicles

3.6 Imagery has a powerful impact. Consider using an image of the collision site, in normal circumstances, to give context. If there is no pavement and no lighting, for example, it is easier to understand why a pedestrian might be at risk walking in such a location at night, for example. It is important this is done with sensitivity to the impact of families of road crash victims

Guideline 4 - Reporting on crime

Publishers must not portray dangerous behaviour on the roads, such as speeding, as acceptable, or those caught breaking the law as victims

4.1 Publishers should not suggest catching and penalising those who speed is wrong or unjust, or perpetuate a view that speeding is socially acceptable. Inappropriate speed is a factor in 24% of fatal collisions, and the risk of causing injury increases 3% for every 1kph increase. Drivers who break the law by speeding are more likely to engage in other risk-taking behaviour, such as jumping red lights. This clause applies to any other dangerous driving activity, including mobile phone use, and to coverage of celebrities on the roads

4.2 Using language that downplays or minimises the seriousness of offending is likely to have an adverse impact in encouraging the acceptance of such law-breaking by society, including other drivers and those involved in the criminal justice system. This can result in offenders not being prosecuted, convicted and sentenced in a manner appropriate to the risks they pose

4.3 When possible, publishers should follow cases through court. Following sentencing outcomes for law-breaking drivers can highlight the consequences of such actions, serving as a warning to other drivers, and revealing any inadequacies in the justice system

4.4 When reporting on traffic collisions, and any resulting delays, publishers should remember people are hurt in collisions. For example, when delays are caused by accident investigation work, that means someone has been killed, is likely to die, or has suffered life-changing injuries, and a criminal investigation may be needed. Sensitive reporting is necessary to convey the seriousness of the situation, which is often an avoidable tragedy, and not merely an inconvenience to other road users

4.5 It is good practice, when covering road safety or road collisions to cultivate and utilise sources from road safety organisations. Their expertise can inform journalists on elements of road safety, and give context of the wider issues and trends locally and nationally. Journalists aren’t expected to be experts in all fields, but publishers have a responsibility to accuracy, which experts can help provide, and inform constructive public discourse

The consultation, which can be found here closes at midnight on Sunday 8 November. After responses have been assessed by a working group, the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines will be officially launched at the 2019 Active Travel Media Awards on 26 November 2020.

Keeping these guidelines firmly in mind will be so valuable in raising the quality of journalism, debate and public attitudes when dealing with road danger and justice.

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Motorcycle Law Scotland Logo

Motorcycle Law Scotland is a unique legal service for injured motorcyclists following a road traffic collision in Scotland. We aim to ensure that motorcyclists and their families receive the best possible legal advice and support.

Our dynamic team of experienced legal experts are also motorcyclists. As specialists, our knowledge of motorcycling incidents, motorcyclists’ needs, motorcycles and the Law is second to none.

We see our clients, and sometimes their family members face to face, so we get to know them well.

Our clients trust us because we speak their language.

Pedestrian Law Scotland

Pedestrian Law Scotland provides specialist personal injury legal representation for pedestrians involved in road traffic incidents in Scotland.

If you've been injured in a road traffic collison as a pedestrian in Scotland within the last three years through no fault of your own, you may be entitled to claim compensation for your loss, injury or damage.

We work on a 'no win no fee' basis and can provide access to justice at no financial risk to you. We will fund your case from start to finish.

Just fill in the contact form or give us a call to discuss your case with one of our specialist Lawyers.

Cycle Law Scotland logo

Cycle Law Scotland is a specialist personal injury legal service for cyclists who have been injured on Scotland's roads through no fault of their own.

The team of legal experts are also all cyclists themselves. As specialists, our knowledge of cycling incidents, cyclists’ needs, bicycles and the Law is second to none.

We like to meet all our clients and sometimes their families personally, so we get to know them well. 

We're passionate about providing the best possible service for our clients and our prime focus is to get them fit again and back on their bikes.

To discuss your potential claim for injury, damage or loss, just contact us.





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Road Traffic Accident Law (Scotland) LLP
16-20 Castle Street,



If you have been involved in a road traffic collision, you can contact us below at an address nearest to you or if you prefer to use our online enquiry form just give your name and number and one of our specialist lawyers will contact you.



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South Gyle,
EH12 9DQ


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G2 1RW



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Broad Street,
Aberdeen, AB10 1BL


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Cavalry Park,
Peebles, EH45 9BU