On Feb. 20, Caleb Maxham died after being struck by an SUV while walking in Brunswick. Caleb’s death, the fourth pedestrian fatality of the year, starts 2017 off right where 2016, one of the most lethal years in Maine for pedestrians and bicyclists, left off.
Regrettably, the limited media attention given to Caleb’s death has focused on the color of his clothing and that he was not in a crosswalk when he was hit, with barely a word devoted to the behavior of the driver who killed him, the infrastructure in the area or the significance of his loss to his family and community.
All too often after the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist, the media and public ask questions like: Why was she wearing dark clothing at night? Why wasn’t he using a light or a flashlight? Why was she in a dimly lit area? Why was he riding his bike on that street at that time? The discourse evokes a blame-the-victim mindset, suggesting that pedestrians and cyclists on Maine’s roadways somehow invite their own deaths by walking to the grocery store in jeans and a parka instead of a neon orange reflective jacket.
Drivers, on the other hand, generally aren’t asked these questions, unless it’s a clear-cut case of hit and run or driving under the influence. Rarely do we see reporters digging into whether a driver was texting, eating or changing the radio station when he took someone’s life.
Worse yet, the media often inferentially excuse a driver who kills or maims someone walking or riding a bicycle. While it’s common to read that a driver was “blinded by the sun” before striking a pedestrian or cyclist, seldom is there reporting on whether the driver took steps to stop or slow when she was unable to see clearly. With nighttime crashes, rarely is there reporting on what drivers did or didn’t do with respect to speed control, vehicle lighting, braking and other operational choices.
In winter crashes like Caleb’s, seldom do we see the media asking authorities questions about the condition of the driver’s headlights, windshield, wipers and mirrors and how vehicle maintenance choices may have affected the driver’s ability to see and react to people and objects on the roadway. As we know, many drivers neglect the noxious buildup of salt, sand, dirt, snow and ice on their vehicles and often fail to replace worn windshield wipers or refill their wiper fluid. These choices can affect the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Yet after a deadly crash, the media remains fixated on what our more vulnerable roadway users should be doing to avoid being struck.
The initial reporting on bicycle and pedestrian traffic deaths also tends to overlook the role played by infrastructure. While there have been some excellent articles in the Maine media on this topic, hardly ever are infrastructure issues explored at the time of a crash.
For example, in Caleb’s case, the media accurately noted that he failed to use a crosswalk and was in a dimly lit area when he was hit, but there was not a single column inch devoted to whether there were any well-lit, well-marked crosswalks in the vicinity. Likewise, there was no coverage about the presence or condition of sidewalks and signage in the area, measures taken (or not taken) to help calm traffic coming off Route 1 or the width of the intersection that Caleb was attempting to cross. Asking these types of questions of drivers, law enforcement officers, planners and traffic engineers is critical to preventing similar deaths.
While reporters may not always be able to get all the answers, until they start asking the right people the right questions, we will not have a comprehensive and accurate understanding of why lives are being lost on our roadways. Instead, our attention will continue to wrongly focus on the actions of victims, regardless of whether those actions actually were the cause of death.
By balancing the coverage of these crashes and examining all the factors involved, we can move beyond blaming the victim and focus instead on the shared use and improvement of Maine’s roadways – for everyone, which is where it belongs.