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Opinion: Why words matter in police statements about traffic crashes

Posted by on February 4th, 2019 at 2:47 pm

Scottie Graser died after a collision with a truck driver while he was riding on Highway 30 on January 13th.

Most people think it was his fault.

The truth is, we don’t yet know exactly what happened. So why do most people blame Graser? Because the Oregon State Police said so.

The official crash statement released by the OSP a mere six hours after the collision read, “Preliminary investigation reveals… Graser… entered the eastbound right lane and a collision occurred.”

As usual, the statement — issued long before the completion of the investigation — was used as the nearly sole basis of many local media stories. It’s one of the big problems in the public perception of these crashes*: Local media copy/pastes police statements into their “stories”. This gives even more authority to the statements because many people think they’re reading reporting when they’re actually reading a police press release. (*For more on the issue of media bias in crash reporting, see this Streetsblog post from January, Six ways the media is still blaming the victim and this new research out of Rutgers and Texas A & M.)

Police press releases are not unbiased accounts. The people who write them are not present when the crash happens and they very likely have a strong bias in favor of the driver’s perspective. These statements almost never interview the vulnerable road user (who is usually either deceased or unable to remember/speak) and when they include information from witnesses, the witnesses are usually also behind the wheel of a car and are therefore are likely to sympathize with that point of view. Therefore, when the media simply regurgitates police press releases without any context, note of caution, or original reporting, they are nothing more than a mouthpiece for police organizations. Even worse, they can perpetuate inaccuracies that misinform the public.

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In the case of Scottie Graser, I followed up with the OSP Public Information Officer to learn more. I asked about the assertion that Graser veered out of his lane prior to being struck. “What leads you to believe this?” I asked. The PIO said witness statements from the driver of the truck that hit Graser and another driver that saw the crash led them to that assumption.

So it wasn’t the OSP that believed Graser left his lane of travel and got hit, it was two witnesses — neither of whom are likely to sympathize with a man bicycling on a highway.

To clarify, the PIO added, “I would not want to make any conclusions until the reconstruction is completed.”

Unfortunately, the PIO’s statement did exactly that. It created a narrative that Graser caused his own death.

The real truth is that we don’t know how exactly this collision occurred. The OSP is still working to complete the investigation.

Whether it was carelessness, bias, or some combination of the two, police owe it to crash victims and the public be more sensitive with these statements. They are powerful messages that set the tone for how we digest crashes — and ultimately — what we do to prevent them.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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John Lascurettes
Subscriber

Hear hear. Even if the police report had been honestly complete about the statements, it would have been better: “Investigation continues. Statements from the driver of the truck and one other auto driver say that the cyclist left the shoulder and entered the lane suddenly.” Great, then at least we’d know whosaid it — even if it would still bias most people. There was no indication of that on the initial report.

dwk
Guest
dwk

It is hard for me to believe that there was zero skids marks or crash marks or anything else on the highway that would not have shown where the bicycle was when it was hit.
This cannot be that hard on a dry road where a human was run over to determine where he was struck.
I do not get it….

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

I think you’re seriously underestimating the difficulty of crash reconstruction. Scottie died by a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed. If there were no skid marks, then all the other evidence would be strewn across a rather large range. Determining where Scottie was–a couple feet right or left–is going to require meticulous reconstruction based on where everything (including, sadly, him) ended up after the crash.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

Or the police could just guess at it and release the only statement people will see in the news!

billyjo
Guest
billyjo

for someone wanting others to not make conclusions, you sure do make some of your own

“, it was two witnesses — neither of whom are likely to sympathize with a man bicycling on a highway.”

How do you know that? Did you speak with them?

John Lascurettes
Subscriber

Can’t answer for the second witness, but for the driver, he has a vested interest in lessening his responsibility (whether he was at fault or not).

For me, when I was in a bike and car accident and I took two witness statements from one pedestrian and one other cyclist, and the driver got a statement from another driver. The reality was that I was well under the speed limit and went through a green light when the driver rolled a red on a right turn. The third-party driver said I was speeding and running red lights. Those were both lies (and the speeding allegation should have been particularly dubious to the insurance adjusters). “Why would he have reason to lie?” asked the insurance adjuster. I have no idea, but the seemed to discount the witness on a bike directly behind me that backed me up on my story because he had an interest in protecting me (even though he didn’t know me). The system is rife with biases.

soren
Guest
soren

I was a witness to an injury collision at a crosswalk on the Hawthorne bridge (gave a statement to the police). I was interviewed on the phone by the motorist’s insurer and the interviewer accused me of lying to protect the other cyclist because I was also a bike rider.

Hess Mills
Guest
Hess Mills

Exactly. I cringed at the irony here.

@Jmaus, ask yourself the same thing you say in the article: “What leads you to believe this?”
Give up your stereotypes if you want others to do the same.

Squeaky Wheel
Guest
Squeaky Wheel

Would enjoy an introspective BikePortland article that takes an honest look in the mirror and asks its editor and its readers to recognize their biases and to own them. Even a casual reader has likely noticed times when @JMaus espouses neutrality while simultaneously advancing stereotypes. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because it’s human, and I sincerely believe @JMaus is a human. What gets my goat is the shield, selectively deployed, of “Oh, I was just stating my opinion. Thank you, next.” Or rather, the pretense that this is an unbiased news site; as strongly as I believe @JMaus is a human and not an emotionless android sent from the future to warn us of the impending oil-pocalypse, I just as strongly believe this is an opinion site meant to advance the agenda of non-motorized transport. Let’s recognize that, and call it like we see it, so that I can stop rolling my eyes every time @bikeninja calls auto users “auto zombies” and the comment doesn’t get deleted for insensitivity.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

Can you refer me to an unbiased news site re: reporting on traffic crashes? I don’t even know what that would look like.

q
Guest
q

The very first four words under bikeportland’s “ABOUT US” section are “We make biking better.” I don’t see that as a claim of being an unbiased news site, or at attempt to hide that the articles contain opinions or viewpoints. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Michael Ingrassia
Guest
Michael Ingrassia

This is an opinion piece. I don’t think that speculation was overstated. Or that it was unreasonable, or hard to identify as sounding true.

meh
Guest
meh

Yet when drivers make sweeping statements about cyclists based on their limited observations how does Bike Portland react? You are simply laying your prejudices on the witnesses without facts.

Michael Ingrassia
Guest
Michael Ingrassia

Which, is sort of the whole point of the piece, all first hand reports are biased in some way, police reports are biased too. “Opinion” or “Opinion Piece” are effectively disclaimers that a journalist is expanding on and exploring their own biases in the article. Parsing out what actually happened from it all requires judgement, which isn’t exactly a scientific process either. There is an art to weighing a writer’s or speaker’s credibility, and taking in to account the role perspicuity plays in perception and belief is a big part of it.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

It’s a fact that witnesses have been known to be biased against VRUs. Do you need specific examples?

q
Guest
q

I’m glad you’re focusing on this whole issue of police reports that include a conclusion prior to the investigation.

J_R
Guest
J_R

To counteract the possibly erroneous assumption that the “bicyclist swerved into the travel lane in front of the motorist,” there should be an additional statement issued by the police agency that says “since motorists are notoriously known for illegally using cellphone while driving and the driver acknowledges owning a cellphone, it is highly likely that the motorist was distracted and may have run onto the shoulder immediately prior to the collision. The investigation continues into behavior of the driver.”

pdx2wheeler
Guest
pdx2wheeler

Baffled why so many don’t use a camera during their rides. A camera talks, BS walks…

Devin Quince
Guest
Devin Quince

I agree on one hand, but on another it brings up the idea that another high priced piece of equipment is needed to just ride a bike, which only disenfranchises people from riding.

PS
Guest
PS

I don’t know, someone who doesn’t want to ride a bike because someone on a blog said they need cameras to do so, probably shouldn’t be riding. At least outside of MUPs. I say this, because cameras are only going to document the absolutely insane stuff you see drivers doing every single day and be a reminder of how little recourse riders have. It may be helpful if you get blasted from behind, hooked, etc, so you get a good settlement, but otherwise, who wants a reminder of all the cell phone usage, no signaling, door zone issues, makeup application, eating, reading, etc.

9watts
Subscriber

“I don’t know, someone who doesn’t want to ride a bike because someone on a blog said they need cameras to do so, probably shouldn’t be riding.”

This strikes me as unhelpfully reductionist, it to mention patronizing.

Plenty of people who are reasonable and likely qualified to ride (whatever that means) could hear this idea – that cameras are essential – and be discouraged from riding, riding in certain areas, times of day, etc. I think the pushback against cameras-as-essential is healthy, akin to the pushback against high-viz-is-essential talk. Both put the onus on the most vulnerable, and tacitly accept that cars driven dangerously, I cautiously, distractedly, too fast is just how things are, oth ing to be done about it.

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

I’m very stable financially. I looked at cameras after this report came out and evaluated spending several hundred dollars for each of two pieces of equipment (front/rear) I probably would forget to charge and the manufacturer doesn’t actually claim will survive a major impact (the memory card is in the center is all they say). I decided it wasn’t worth it. I assume for lots of others with less financial means, it’s an even simpler calculation.

Why don’t car insurance companies require their customers to have dash cams?

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

At a minimum, it should be required of commercial drivers.

Rain Panther
Guest
Rain Panther

I have a constantly evolving wish list of bike related items, and cameras never seem to bubble up to the top. They just don’t hold the same promise for fun and enjoyment as other items. Dealing with that every day seems suspiciously like a chore.

Pete
Guest
Pete

Crash cams I’ve tried (older Rideye and Cycliq) have narrow field of view and not really enough resolution to consistently and clearly make out license plates (let alone drivers; American court tends to require proof of who’s driving). I’ve reviewed footage in varying light and it’s not great. The latest Cycliq footage from the article about the fellow who got confronted taking the lane downhill seems good, but that model is pricey and didn’t get stellar reviews. Also have two Hero4s which are less than ideal for commuting, and their remote sucks.

soren
Guest
soren

Because cycling is very safe*. I also don’t use mirrors, helmets, or hi-vis clothing for the same reason.

*PBOT serious injury statistics indicate that cycling in Portland is about as safe as driving on a per “commuter” basis.

dragoonO1
Guest
dragoonO1

Indeed.

I’ve been the victim of a hit-and-run, and I recorded my own crash video. The camera survived undamaged, while my bicycle and I were destroyed and seriously injured respectively. The camera($90), memory card(~30), and mount(12) totaled $142. It was a generic China action cam, but it was 1080p 30fps.

The crash video was immediately reviewed by the investigating officer on the scene, and established my version of events in the police report. The video was invaluable in my (Uninsured motorist and PIP) insurance claims, and enabled me to negotiate a successful settlement. The insurance adjusters all commented on the video and praised it(They all remarked how they never had seen a crash video before.), and it made the claim process very smooth.

I later replaced that camera with 2 others, helmet(~160 total, Sony HDR AS-100V) and tail mounted(~160 total, Xiaomi Yi Lite), and spare batteries. Using the Sony, I have also submitted 2 close calls to police as evidence in complaint(s). The Sony was able to clearly capture a registration plate at night. In all 3 cases, the videos were instrumental in obtaining support from law enforcement (Tigard PD). Both of the drivers in the complaints were notified by police that they had been recorded violating traffic laws and endangered the safety of a VRU (me).

It is absolutely a chore and time consuming to charge them and manage the memory cards and video files. Cameras are yet another accessory, but I also use these them as dual dash cams when I drive, windshield and rear window mount. Despite the inconvenience, I have video evidence demonstrating that a crime and dangerous traffic violations occurred, where I otherwise would not.

9watts
Subscriber

Fascinating. Thanks for that elaboration.

dwk
Guest
dwk

Again, it is kind of shocking that hardly anyone responding is addressing the basic question…
Unless Mr. Graser had a stroke or something, he was a very experienced cyclist and would not ride into the lane…..
The police have to know from the scene, I am not sure why this is a mystery or why anyone is questioning that Mr. Graser was run over by an inattentive driver.

billyjo
Guest
billyjo

oh, that has to be it. No question about it!

this attitude, that is on bike portland alot is my main problem with fully embracing and fully defending the bike community in this city. But when I talk with people outside of this circle, there is no way I can do anything but cringe.

dwk
Guest
dwk

Ok, Mr. Glaser swerved right in front of a truck going 50mph….Is that find with you?
Case closed.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Yes yes and yes! Great article. When we in the transportation safety industry started talking about this shift in thinking in the last 90s…I so thought we would be past this point of “understanding” how the current systems stacks the deck against vulnerable roadway users (aka customers).

Glenn the 2nd
Guest
Glenn the 2nd

The most basic reason for skepticism of the police report in this case was right there in the news release: “preliminary.” As in, “not yet complete or final.” Granted, a lot of the biases and tunnel-vision that creep into police or other investigative work, do so in the “preliminary” phase, simply because, well, that’s what comes first.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

In the spirit of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, I’m going to need a LOT more than the statement of the driver who collided with someone and another motorist to believe that a reasonably experienced cyclist on a roadway he has ridden hundreds or even thousands of times previously suddenly veered into traffic in such a way that the motorist had no time to adjust. It is simply much more likely that the motorist left the lane and struck the cyclist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a motorist remain in a single lane for more than a half-mile.

As far as the police spokesman misleading the public by prematurely blaming the victim, he has an incentive to do so. If the public comes to understand that the police are completely failing to tame dangerous motorists who are killing people, that’s going to lead to some questioning of police effectiveness. Far better, for the OSP, to give the impression that this was some weirdo doing something dangerous than to acknowledge they have lost control of their jurisdiction.

As we used to learn in high school, always consider each party’s motivation in presenting what they do.

q
Guest
q

That’s perceptive to note that the police as well as the driver have an incentive to blame the victim, for the reason you said.

During the Sellwood Bridge project, someone drove onto the sidewalk and got their truck stuck. The project’s statement blamed the driver, even noting drug paraphernalia was found in the vehicle (could have been legal pot products with no relevance to the situation?). But I’d been there right before, and the construction barricades were set up in a confusing way that seemed to lead people directly into where she drove. And right after the truck was removed, the barricades were totally redone to eliminate that confusion. The driver still could still have been substantially at fault (or not) but the statement not surprisingly didn’t mention the barricades as a possible factor. But with statements being written by agency employees who may also act (even officially) as agency PR spokespeople, there’s an incentive to shield the agency from blame.

billyjo
Guest
billyjo

And remember your motivation. Honestly, people like you making statements like this is exactly why the vast majority of people don’t even listen to the bike community. We get it, you hate cars and people who drive cars.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A
9watts
Subscriber

“the vast majority of people don’t even listen to the bike community.”

That is quite the statement. Care to clarify some of the claims?

You have a direct line to ‘the majority of people’?

And ‘bike community,’ who is that? How do we know if someone is a member, or perhaps an infiltrator? You post here, are you also a member? How come we disagree over so many things? Do the ‘majority of people’ ignore both of us equally?

Pat Franz
Guest
Pat Franz

That the bias is allowed to stand is especially awful because the initial release is the only “information” most people will ever hear about it. They will make their travel and voting plans based on what they hear.

The public is being mislead. Purposefully, or lazily, or ignorantly, it needs to stop. The people filing these reports are supposed to be professionals, with training and oaths.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Double standard in effect; you disagree with OSP on this tragedy but you sympathize with PPB on Ladd’s Addition stop sign monitoring video; make up your mind or stop editorializing.

X
Guest
X

In the case of the Ladd’s Addition video, we have that video and we have a named traffic officer who gave a specific account of his experience and his reasons for acting and not acting. This is entirely credible. In this post, labeled as Opinion:. . ., Jonathan discusses the effect of a spokesperson who is -not- the investigating traffic officer shaping public discourse by releasing a preliminary report into a short attention span media environment. Result: for all time, bike riders are prone to veering into the track of motor vehicles and getting killed on Highway 30.

State troopers of all people would know better. One of their greatest occupational hazards is getting hit by motor vehicles travelling at speed on the shoulder of a highway. Construction workers, same thing. It’s a commonplace. Police, other emergency personnel, and road workers have laws that are -enforced- to protect them in such cases. Nobody suggests that they leaped into traffic.

q
Guest
q

What is the double standard that you’re seeing?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

When you’re only ever looking for hypocrisy, everything starts to look like a double-standard.

Tom
Guest
Tom

Why don’t the police reports say if they plan to pull black box data from the car, or if they asked the driver about cell phone usage, or plan to get a warrant to scan the phone?. Fatal collisions should require mandatory warrant requests for cell phone and black box data.

MantraPDX
Guest
MantraPDX

What a great point. I can’t imagine this would be a hard policy to implement given the amount of work that already goes into a fatal collision investigation. Seems it should be a matter of course.

X
Guest
X

We don’t know how much discretion individual officers have, how they’re trained, or what messages they receive from senior officers. All we know is what we read in the papers. 🙁

Pete
Guest
Pete

Recently I saw a TV news banner reading, “pedestrian seriously injured in collision with pickup truck.” Good thing the truck’s OK!