I wrote yesterday (A cyclist dies at the lights – no action required) about the student killed at the end of Broad Street, commenting on how reason gets drowned out by the squeals of those who claim to have predicted and warned of this very thing, by demands that something must be done, and by the clatter of coins as highways officers and councillors rush to spend money so that they can be seen to be doing something.
Cherwell, the student magazine headlines the story with “Student killed at accident blackspot”. I am not sure how many casualties there are to one blackspot – more than a few are needed, I would say, before a stretch of road gets elevated to the status of “blackspot”, or we would need a new screamer word for somewhere really dangerous.
Although deprivation is now one of the criteria for admission to the University, one would like to hope that this has not been entirely at the cost of intellectual ability. What evidence supports the headline label “blackspot”?
Um, well, not much really.The suggestion is repeated in the body of the article:
“The King’s Arms junction is a notorious accident blackspot. In February 2006… a Mansfield student was hospitalised … after a collision with another cyclist”
Is that it? Well, that is all which is advanced in the article to back the twice-repeated assertion that this is a blackspot. There have in fact been more inter-cyclist accidents than this, most of them, including the one referred to, directly due to one or both cyclists jumping or ignoring the lights. Pedestrians get mowed down by bikes occasionally. That can only happen either because a cyclist has subverted the pedestrian’s legitimate assumption that he or she was protected by the lights or (just as likely) because a pedestrian neglected to look before stepping off the sidewalk, trottoir, pavimentazione, pflaster, 路面 or 舗装 or whatever he calls the pavement back home, where the traffic comes from the other direction.
The use of dramatic words in headlines is fine up to a point. The downside comes when a highways officer reads the headline (or has it read to him, slowly) and thinks (there’s another word which heavily overstates the reality) that if this is a blackspot, he ought to be doing something about it.
Cue for a recommendation to a committee of councillors for some signs, lights, barriers and road markings. None of them has the guts any more to argue against any proposal which has the word “safety” in it.
Emotive words make good headlines. Good journalism, however, requires at least some support in the text for the assertion made by the big words at the top. There is a risk otherwise that a suggestion unsupported by the facts becomes accepted as true by people not equipped to discriminate between fact and fiction.