“The Bicyclist Was Not Wearing a Helmet”

It’s a little story.

A short item in the police blotter section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper tells of a collision between an SUV and a bicycle.

After reporting that the northbound cyclist was in the righthand lane, and was hit by the SUV, the reporter included the line, “The bicyclist was not wearing a helmet.”

So what?

That line implies that the cyclist was at fault. But the information about the crash said the SUV was coming from the opposite direction, and turning into a business. So it should have yielded to oncoming traffic, including the cyclist. The item did not point out that the SUV failed to yield to the cyclist. Instead, we learn that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. There is no mandatory helmet law for adults in the state of Texas or the city of Austin. The information is irrelevant.

What would be relevant is whether the police ticketed the CRV driver for failure to yield. After all, the cyclist had to be taken to a nearby hospital with minor injuries.

This is the kind of little thing that can have negative repercussions. Bike-hating drivers who see the item will shake their heads and cluck their tongues, and mutter about those no-good cyclists.

Why didn’t the paper include a line about the driver being at fault in this case?

“We do not assign blame in straight news stories unless quoting/citing a police report or spokesman,” tweeted the Statesman’s social media editor, in reply to an outraged cyclist’s inquiry.

The Bike Noob worked in the news media for 16 years before becoming a journalism professor. I can explain a little about how this sort of thing happens, although I don’t defend it.

Newsrooms, like all organizations, operate on a set of routines. Collecting items from the police blotter is a matter of routine, handled by one of several reporters assigned to the police beat. Most blotter stories are short, because by newsroom standards, they don’t affect many people. That’s the situation here.

Once the reporter gets the information from the police, she writes it up, and moves on to the next story. Since only minor injuries were involved, it isn’t worth the reporter’s time and effort to get more details from the police. So she misses the chance to dig deeper and find out if the police are blaming the driver for the collision.

But the helmet info was probably included in the incident report filed by the police, so she dutifully made note of that.

I once worked in a TV newsroom with a policy of stating whether a cyclist wore a helmet whenever we reported on a cycling crash. Most of us weren’t cyclists. It seemed reasonable to include that information. We didn’t consider that we were making the cyclist appear to be at fault for not wearing a helmet.

But that’s just what happened here. While the paper did not “assign” blame to the cyclist, by reporting that she wasn’t wearing a helmet, and not reporting any action against the motorist, only the cyclist was put in a bad light.

What will it take to correct this prevailing attitude? Keep calling it to the attention of editors. Things aren’t really going to change, though, until more reporters and editors join the ranks of cyclists, and are alert to implications that such a seemingly innocuous line could have.

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17 thoughts on ““The Bicyclist Was Not Wearing a Helmet”

  1. I’m conflicted on this one.. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of blame shifting, or blissful ignorance, as perhaps it is a matter of morbid curiosity. How often do we read/hear reports of these types of things and we (or at least I) *have* to know if the victim was buckled in, wearing a helmet, or in the least, sporting clean underwear. I don’t think there was any nefarious intent on the part of the reporter. It’s not uncommon, afterall, for reporters to mention things like “there was no indication alcohol was involved” or “no one onboard was wearing a life jacket”. I do agree, though, that it does “cheapen” the life of an individual by somehow implying that he/she is at least partially at fault by sheer circumstance. It’s much akin to reporting that an assault victim was wearing a mini-skirt, or perhaps dressed a bit “too nicely” for some part of town.

    Oddly enough, I’ve just recently noticed a disturbing trend among cyclists regarding (what I perceive to be) a decline in helmet use…

  2. Don’t forget after it is written, it’s edited and sometimes edited again (cut) depending on space and what else is going on.

    Cyclists in this town need a visible advocate in the local media, print, TV or whatever. An advocate in city hall would also do wonders. I wonder what kind of economic impact cycling has on this city. I wonder what kind of political impact the bike commmunity could have…….

  3. About a billion years ago, I seem to recall an advocacy group that was trying to get helmet laws passed for children. They asked the media to include this specific line in news reports regarding bicycle accidents to create awareness (which can be read as, “scare tactics,”) and get the helmet law passed. It was then included to ensure the law was obeyed. I have never read any more into that line than that.

  4. I was the enraged cyclist that started this tweet argument with the paper in question. It was a rant because the helmet comment set me off. I’m getting tired of seeing that particular statement in every single news report.

    What also set me off was the focus on the cyclist and that’s what I complained to the paper about. Whether intentional or not, the headlines can have commentary effect. So instead of saying “cyclist injured” every single time they report one of incidents, why don’t they say “motorist hits cyclist.”

    I understand that they only reported what they had from the police department. Since when did the local paper become the public affairs venue for the police department?

    We get in depth reporting and investigation on a wide variety of issues. Yet on this very important issue of cyclist safety we get virtually nothing. No investigation, no follow up. The public will probably never learn that this incident was the fault of the driver.

    And I’m talking about both sides of the cyclist safety issue. Recently, a man was killed at night. Initial report said the police thought the lights on his bike weren’t working. Huge issue here, lots of stealth riders at nightt (which is moronic at best). Once again, no follow up, no investigation, no highlighting the issue.

    Lots of advocates for cycling in this city. The local newspaper doesn’t lift a finger to help and very often hinders.

    Rant over. Sorry.

  5. I’m impressed that the event was called a collision rather than an accident. I read the helmet mention as related to the severity of the cyclists injuries, rather than responsibility for the collision. The police, by policy or practice, might routinely note helmet use, and the newsroom policy might call for inclusion of every noted fact from the police report. But if that is the case, including the additional fact that helmet use is not required by law would weaken the potential linkage of helmet use and responsibility for the collision.

  6. This is EXACTLY the reason that I started riding again with a helmet. Not so much because I think it’s safer (though it may be), but more because I didn’t want people tut-tutting and blaming me if I was ever in an accident.

    Because that DOES seem to be the refrain in stories like this. “Cyclist not wearing a helmet” seems to = “Careless, irresponsible cyclist” in too many cases.

    And that stinks.

  7. Sorry to double-post, but we’re letting the anti-bicycle people frame the discourse for us too many times. And that’s not good for bicycling.

  8. This aggravates me too. Whenever I read an article in our local paper about a cyclist/motorist collision, it usually mentions whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet. Same with motorcyclists too. It seems that giving that bit of information only serves to inflame the morons who leave comments on our local newspaper’s website. It’s as if they think because the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet, they deserved to get hit by a car (no matter who was in the wrong). It saddens me to see that people don’t stop to realize that the cyclist they’re making nasty comments about is someone’s loved one. But a lot of local folks here are pretty opinionated about cyclists and they seem happy to express that animosity every chance they get.

  9. Interesting comments. Seems to me that if the blotter item includes the cyclist’s helmet status, that it should include whether the driver was wearing a seatbelt. I doubt anything untoward was meant by adding the detail of the helmet as it is a detail non-cyclists often ask but it does show bias. And for disclosure, I am a newspaper editor in my day job.

  10. First – yes I realize this thread is four years old. Sadly, it is as relevant today as it was when it was written. And I apologize for the length of this post. Clearly it is an important topic to me!

    Thank you for this article, and to those who left comments. It is heartening to learn that I’m not the only one bothered by this practice.

    While I also believe that this sort of “reporting” is done without nefarious intent, the inclusion of “the cyclist was/was not wearing a helmet” hammers home one point to non-cycling readers: That wearing a helmet makes for a safe rider, and that not wearing a helmet makes for an unsafe rider. No other detail is important: Appropriate helmet for the sport? In good condition? Proper fit? Fastened correctly? Did it stay on in the crash? Were there head injuries? No, none of that matters. If the cyclist was not wearing a helmet, she was not riding “safely.” In fact she was clearly being irresponsible. We don’t care if her bicycle was in good working order. We don’t care if she was a skilled, alert rider. If she was deaf. If she had a mirror. If she was intoxicated. If she was being attacked by wasps. The way to determine if she was riding safely is knowing if a helmet was worn. Should we not also be apprised of the involved automobile’s safety features, and maybe what the driver was wearing?

    But hey, no big deal, right? As one of the commenter put it, “It’s just the way things are done.” Well, it is a bigger deal than it may first appear, and things shouldn’t be done like this. Allow me to get a bit dramatic to make my point:

    I think about the safety of *all* cyclists. And having a child in grade school, my main concern is for our most vulnerable riders. The safety of our kids is negatively influenced when we continuing this practice of implying that helmet = safe cyclist. I see little un-skilled Jane plunked onto her too-small bicycle with under-inflated, cracked tires and a rusted chain. Her heavy backpack is in the front basket, rendering the bike almost impossible to control. As she goes wobbling off to school, her parents take confidence from the ill-fitting, incorrectly-worn helmet perched too far back on her head. She’ll be safe because we put a helmet on her. We don’t need to teach our kid how to ride safely, or to make sure she is wearing a proper helmet properly – as long as we strap on that hand-me-down helmet that’s been baking in the garage for 15 years. The helmet doesn’t have to fit or be in good condition, it just has to be attached to the head. Now that we have helmet laws, it is so easy to be a good parent! We’re following the law and making Jane safe.

    And that’s my slick segue into the sister issue that also makes cyclists less safe while we pretend to know what defines cycling safety. In the same way that we ignorantly create a “safe rider” simply by installing something that resembles a helmet onto a cyclist’s head (so we can confidently ignore anything that would truly make a safer rider), we are also told that we cyclists must obey the law to be safe. In fact, much like wearing a helmet is the definition of safe for some people, many others feel it is “obeying the law” that defines cycling safety. We haven’t taught our kids how to glance behind them, how to merge with traffic, how to make eye contact with drivers, how to properly queue up and cross intersections. We don’t even teach them how to get off the saddle to put both feet firmly on the ground at a stop. But we’ve got a helmet on that kid, and we’ve told them that they have to ride in the gutter (clearly most drivers think this is the law), and to stop at stop signs. There’s no need to teach them how to determine when it is safe to enter the intersection after stopping, because it’s the stopping that’s important. The same drivers who think nothing of going “only” 10 mph over the speed limit and who slow all the way down to walking speed when rolling past a stop sign often claim that a cyclist that does not ride in the gutter, and who rolls through a stop sign is “unsafe.”

    So the reason we’re not creating safe cyclists is because we’re pretending that safe is: Riding in the gutter, stoping at all stop signs and wearing a helmet. Don’t bother me with proper equipment, education and training. I’m wearing a HELMET!

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