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Say What You Mean And....

Articulate the precise vocabulary with which you expect to be comprehended, and

then undertake to conduct yourself in a manner that is entirely consistent with the

verbal description you have just voiced.

Isn't that a convoluted way of overstating the simple, oft-repeated phrase? Sometimes word choices get in the way of what we're trying to communicate! It can be challenging to get to the core of what's being said when it's obscured by way too many words. And using too few words or poor word choices can be detrimental to conveying the intended meaning.

Language is powerful, sometimes profoundly so. In, sometimes very subtle, ways the spoken and written word communicate the opinions of the writer/speaker. Whether it's our intention or not, those who read and hear our words are impacted by our biases. It can be quite a challenge to truly say what we mean and mean what we say!

When a statement fails to give sufficient detail, it's difficult to know for certain just what is being communicated. The phrase “the bicyclist was hurt” gives only the barest comment on what has occurred and is subject to an infinite number of “translations”. Without clarification, there's no way to know that the rider sustained multiple serious injuries, including a spinal fracture and a closed-head injury. Although not actually untruthful, the simple sentence certainly down-played the ramifications of the actual event. Sadly, that's the kind of language that is often used in police reports. If the non-driver is even mentioned at all...

Since I've decided to become a voice for Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs), I have discovered that when discussing this highly emotional subject, word choices become incredibly important. This was brought to my attention on the day my husband was injured, when a friend corrected me having said that Jim had been “hit by a truck”. Trucks don't run into people, drivers do. Regardless of the actual details, any incident feels less personal, therefore far less emotion-laden, when the wording implies that a “thing” rather than a person was responsible. The use of wording that depersonalizes does a major disservice to both the situation and the injured party.

In the same way, such incidents are most commonly referred to as “accidents”. That, too, is an inaccurate choice of words. In a majority of cases, rather than being accidental, the cause of a crash is negligence or carelessness on the part of one or both parties. Collisions happen, and calling them “accidents” implies that what occurred was completely by chance, that no one was at fault. And that, of course, is seldom the case.

A discussion of language creates an opportunity for me to clarify the designation “Vulnerable Road Users”. Pedestrians, persons in wheelchairs, motorcyclists, bicyclists, crossing guards, emergency responders, etc, etc, etc. VRUs are those who have the legal right to use roadways, but who are far less protected than the drivers of cars, trucks, and SUVs. They are a distinct disadvantage when sharing the road with heavier vehicles which also possess greater maneuverability and speed to help them avoid collisions. Without the protection of a “cage” of metal, VRUs are a great deal more vulnerable to injury.

Because of that vulnerability, making choices that provide for the safety of those persons becomes a shared responsibility. VRUs need to follow the rules of the road and demonstrate careful behavior and good judgment at all times. Other drivers need to adopt a mindset that all have a right to travel in whatever way they prefer, without fear of injury or worse. Educating the public is imperative, if mutual respect and the safety of everyone who shares the road is to become a reality!

A huge part of finding shared understanding is to contest the misplaced sense of their own rights held by many drivers of cars, trucks, and SUVs. Widespread acceptance of the notion that roadways are solely for those users denies the rights of others who have an equal right to be on the road. All too often, it also relieves any sense responsibility to concern oneself with the safety of those lesser protected persons. The liberty of any person or group extends only to the degree that it does not violate the rights and well being of others.

All too often, when VRUs are injured or killed, the inference is made that they were in the wrong. That is undoubtedly the case in some situations. However, in a great many instances the vocabulary used to describe the collision is prejudicial. Very few are actually no more than “accidents”. A mere “fender-bender” implies that little damage was done to the larger vehicle. Little, if any, information addresses the damage to a VRU which was most likely far greater. We must learn to communicate clearly and educate others to do so, as well. Until descriptions of these incidents become an accurate representation of the actual occurrence, misunderstandings will continue to confuse and color the issue.

If we are ever to see safer road use and justice for VRUs, this issue demands change! If you share my concern and wish to be a part of helping change perceptions about Vulnerable Road Users, please join me in making these commitments:

  • I acknowledge that my words and attitude can either help or hurt my “cause”.

  • I will carefully consider what I say and how I say it.

  • I will be honest and respectful.

Let's all do our best to say what me mean and mean what we say!


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