How do you get insurance information from a car that presumably drove itself?

[flickr]photo:3365356245[/flickr]

An actual robotic car. Cars driven by robotic software may actually be safer for our roads than cars driven by people because they never stop paying attention. Photo by j-fi. 

You may have read about 10 days ago that actor Gene Hackman was involved in a collision with an automobile while cycling in Florida. And if you read about this on CNN’s website, you may be under the impression that he was hit by a robot car. Twice in the article there is a mention of a car hitting Hackman and but a driver of that automobile is mentioned 0 times. The robot car strikes again!

I want news media to write stronger, more accurate descriptions of the situation. I want articles about robot cars to only be about cars that are driven without a human operator (an article by Tom  Vanderbilt, also the author of Traffic). When you discover it, tell the author and their editor that you want better information. I am republishing, in full, Travis Wittwer’s essay titled “#robotcar”:


Please use #robotcar to increase awareness of rogue robot cars.

Actually, it is a word thing. Syntax. Parallelism. I find it bothersome.

It is weak writing to to refer to a collision (it is not an accident) without including reference to the operator of the vehicle, whatever the vehicle is–car, bike, boat, or space shuttle.

On Twitter: “Off to a bad year so far RT @KGWnews Man struck by car on SW Macadam is latest in two days – story“.

The above tweet has a man being struck (hit) by a car. A person was hit by a robot car. No one was apparently driving the car otherwise, the driver of the vehicle would be responsible for the collision with the man.

I will hereto refer to this lack of clarity as #robotcar with respect to a post that Steve Vance, a founder of Grid Chicago, wrote. You will see similarities between our posts. In addition, Jonathan Maus, editor of BikePortland, often writes a column entitled, Language Matters. Jonathan will take a piece a writing from the news and rewrite it, showing how a little time and effort can make the conversation more clear. (PS Jonathan, love the multiple meanings of the column title. Clever.)

This type of #robotcar phrasing creates two overarching issues:

1) It distances the responsibility of the operator that caused the collision. For example, in the statement, The cyclist was hit by a car the word “cyclist” implies a person whereas the word “car” is an object. The structure is not parallel.

Responsibility should be placed on the driver, but it gets placed on the car. An object. What this does is belittle the collision and dehumanize the situation. Who can be mad at a car? Even though I am aware of this phrasing and how it takes the driver of the car out of the picture, I still find myself thinking of the person on a bike, I picture it, and the car, I picture it without a driver. That is why language is so powerful. Even when you are aware, you have to check yourself.

Better: The cyclist was hit by the driver of the car. However, this is not great because “cyclist” is a term for the operator of a bicycle (or motorcycle in the colloquial). In keeping the statement clear, the “car” part should just say “driver.”

And this leads to the second issue …

2) The statement is not parallel. In one part, the thing is an object and in the other part, the thing is a person. Take the statement at the start and switch the “cyclist” to the vehicle used and the “car” to driver and see what happens.

The bike was hit by a driver.

So a driver drove up on a curb and hit a parked, unattended, bike? (Or was it a golf club that was thrown in anger which hit a bike parked outside the club house?) All I did was take the original statement and switch the syntax problem so the bike was a robot bike.

Better: The cyclist was hit by a driver. Or, The person on bike was hit by the driver of a car.

Yes, the sentence is longer and you could argue that it becomes convoluted. And yes, the sentence is more complex, but it better conveys the event. Responsibility and people involved are clear.

There are two other problems to the original statement The cyclist was hit by a car.

a) the statement is passive voice placing the person on bike at the start of the sentence and then the car, making the sentence read as if it is the fault of the person on a bike for not being alert. Don’t think so? Consider the phrase I added to the original statement and see how it reads.

(Because of his failure to use lighting at night) The cyclist was hit by a car.

Yes, I added the phrase and it does change the intention of the original statement but it flows so well that I would argue that even without my added phrase, the original statement has that tone; your brain reads it that way even if you are not conscious of it.

This happens because we learn the structure of sentences, the syntax. The item doing the action (subject) is usually at the start of the sentence, and the object of that action, is at the end. In the statement Travis threw the ball, “Travis” is the item doing the action. In the statement Travis threw the ball and broke the window, “Travis” did an action which resulted in a broken window.

The window was broken by Travis.

If I put “window” at the start of the sentence, where I expect the item that does the doing, it makes the item sound like the subject. It makes the item sound like the one that does the doing and therefore at fault. Subtle? Yes. However, in the window example there are not two people involved so it is more clear. In a passive statement involving two people, the implications are greater.

The cyclist was hit by a car.

Darn that cyclist for being the cause of the hit by a car.

Words have power. The way we arrange our language has power, and when the safety of people is involved, we need to be clear so the message is sent which brings me to the last problem of the original statement …

b) The original statement uses “cyclist,” a term that grates on me. Using “cyclist” narrowly defines a person. The problem with this narrow definition is it creates communication where a person can group people together as “cyclists” when pushing for a negative angle, 50 cyclists were arrested at the Critical Mass ride. This statement allows a person to think, oh those crazy cyclists–all of them–everyone on a bike–people on a bike–I am not one of them.

Also, by using “cyclist,” the opportunity for many people to see riding a bike as a viable part of life is lost because many people think they have to be hard core to be a “cyclist” because “cyclist” is a term that makes you think of races and spandex, of riding your bike more than to the library and grocery store.

“Person on a bike” is a phrase most people can accept because they are people and do ride a bike on occasion. “Cyclist” excludes people.

I am not a cyclist. I am not a driver. I am not a teacher. I am a person. I partake in many activities. I am multidimensional. To think of myself as a “cyclist” ignores that I am more than that. It is ignorant and arrogant. None of my online bios say “bicyclist” or “cyclist.” Do yours? What message are you sending?

I can see why news reporting just goes for the easy write. It takes time to revise and in the end, the writer may argue that the time spent is not worth it, saying Who Cares!?

I care. It is worth it because clear communication, communicates clearly the actual situation. There are many issues with the original statement and I did not touch on the problems of not considering what weak article (a/an/the) usage does to a sentence. Using an indefinite article (a/an) rather than the definitive article (the) hides clarity and responsibility. Better than those articles (also known as a type of adjective) is the adjective (personal pronoun) “his” but I will take that up in another post.

Person on a bike; active voice; responsibility placed; and no robot cars. How would you rewrite The cyclist was hit by a car?

What started me thinking, again, was this retweet by BikePortland. In the tweet it is a driver of a car that hit a man. @KGWNews sent the original tweet, photo at top. I usually see this style of phrasing when referring to a collision involving two operators–one of a bike, one of an car.

Editor’s note: Travis Wittwer is a friend, English teacher, and a father of four who lives in Portland, Oregon. -SV

7 thoughts on “How do you get insurance information from a car that presumably drove itself?”

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Steve. I appreciate the wider audience and look forward to what insights your readers will share.

  2. I agree that language matters, and this is an important topic to address.

    However, I think you can also take the argument too far. Although it’s wrong to make statements that make it sound like a motor vehicle can make conscious decisions (“the car decided to turn right”), it is technically true that a car can hit a bicycle, or a bicyclist. It’s the car’s frame that is making physical contact with the bicycle, or with the human who happens to be riding on it. The car didn’t decide to be in that place at that time — the person driving the vehicle did — but is a brief news article really the time to address that?

    Also, I agree that the term “cyclist” currently brings to mind people in Lycra and heart rate monitors, but does that mean we have to give up the term? I say instead we share the joy of riding our bikes as an easy and fun means of transportation and gradually encourage people to just get on their bikes and become “cyclists” like us.

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