Last month, we reported on a disturbing event in Abington Township, Montgomery County. Kelly Williams, a rising freshman at Abington High, was struck and critically injured while crossing the street at an intersection with a very clearly marked crosswalk and no traffic signal. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, the coverage from 6ABC.com must have only added to the family’s pain. The media outlet led with the title “Girl Chatting on Facetime Struck and Critically Injured by Car in Abington.”
While that title was apparently technically accurate, the tone of it speaks to a culture that seeks to blame vulnerable road users for crashes with motorists as a default response until more facts become clear, even in a case where it was known at the time that a motorist struck a pedestrian in an unsignaled crosswalk with enough force to cause her body to be thrown 102 feet from the point of impact, and that the point of impact was in near the halfway point across the crosswalk. Well, now even more facts have become clear.
The driver, a 32-year-old Abington man, was determined by crash investigators to have been traveling at least 46 miles per hour in the 25 mile-per-hour zone that surrounds the high school. He was charged with “aggravated assault by vehicle and other crimes” according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article posted yesterday. 6ABC.com also posted a follow-up story in which it acknowledged the charges, but also doubled down on the theme of its initial coverage, stating “according to witnesses, Williams was looking at her phone and engaged in a video chat at the time, though investigators did not cite it as a contributing factor in the crash…” While nobody would recommend crossing a street while engaging with a smartphone, it is simply irresponsible to imply that Ms. Williams should bear the blame for this crash.
The coverage of 6ABC.com is unfortunately quite common in the media: implying that a 14-year-old who was walking exactly where she was supposed to be walking, in an area that most have been trained since before they can remember to believe is “safe,” was at fault for the tragedy. Many youth today don’t watch broadcast TV, and evening news viewership trends older every year, but treating this tragedy as a “kids these days” type of story does considerable disservice to our public discourse, while also causing additional pain to a family that must be suffering tremendously, and to a youth who may never fully recover from this incident.
It is not important who the driver is. He is not an “other.” He is all of us. He appears to have meant no harm to Ms. Williams, but he also appears to have been driving nearly double the posted speed limit (at least 46mph, according to investigators) while being distracted. He, like many of us at some point in our lives, failed to grasp the destructive power that a vehicle weighing two tons and moving at considerable speed can have on an unprotected body that is only a fraction of its weight. This power is enormous, and we, all of us, need to practice driving with an amount of responsibility commensurate with this power. Though causing another’s death or injury when behind the wheel can be a painful lifelong burden to bear, we also need to look at nobody but ourselves to cast blame on when our actions behind the wheel cause pain and suffering to those around us. This is a fundamental of Vision Zero, a worldwide civic campaign that seeks to bring traffic deaths to zero, and that does not accept any death or suffering as a shoulder shrugging cost of modern mobility. We owe the Ms Williams, and other young people trying to make sense of their lives, a better world than they are inheriting.