Death by automobile: a question of semantics

If you haven’t heard about Saturday’s gruesome incident in Fort Greene, Brooklyn Spoke has an excellent analysis that faults not only the driver of the vehicle but also the lax enforcement by the NYPD of traffic laws.

I want to focus today on the way this story was reported in the media. Check out some of these original headlines, some since amended:

Boy, 9, Is Killed by S.U.V. in Brooklyn [NYT]
Brooklyn out-of-control SUV kills boy [ABC7]
Boy, 9, Struck And Killed In Brooklyn Accident [CBS2]
1 Child Killed, 3 Others Injured By Out-Of-Control SUV In Fort Greene [Gothamist]

What do they have in common? Each absolves (by omission) the driver of any responsibility. The SUV had a mind of its own! It was out of control! It was a complete accident!

In reality, automobiles do not just jump curbs, do not just collide with other cars, do not, if operated properly, need to swerve to avoid hitting pedestrians with the right of way. It’s nice to see the police have arrested the driver; now we just need to ensure Ken Thompson gets into the DA’s role so we can see this guy through to a trial.

Let’s take a deeper look at the last headline, because of all of the media outlets, Gothamist, as one that writes fairly on livable streets, should know better than to pump out crap like this. The author later changed the title to:

1 Child Killed, 3 Others Injured By Out-Of-Control SUV Driver In Fort Greene

Ok, so that’s better. But how would our reaction have differed had the headline read as follows?

1 Child Killed, 3 Others Injured By Out-Of-Control Gunman In Fort Greene

Yes, I know. It’s too much of a stretch; this new headline implies intent, whereas I’m guessing the driver didn’t leave his house wishing to mow down a family.

Let’s try this instead:

1 Child Killed, 3 Others Injured When Gun Discharges In Fort Greene

We’ve removed the “intent” element. Don’t you think the layperson would be calling for better gun control to prevent something like this from happening in the future – perhaps to his own family?

So where’s the outrage from the public here? Why are we not all over Ray Kelly? Does it not matter because it was in an outer borough? Or have we become so tolerant of traffic violence that we just shrug our shoulders and consider needless deaths the “cost of doing business” in New York City?

If you believe that, please tell that to this family. I’m sure they’ll take comfort from knowing their child’s unnecessary death was not as “legitimate” as that of others.

My condolences go out to the family of Lucian Merryweather, the 9-year-old who was killed. I hope the other victims will have a quick recovery.

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