Philly Voice reporter Brian Hickey shared his story of being hit by a car during a recent Vision Zero Philadelphia Conference panel. (Adam Bender)
Want pedestrians and bike riders to stop getting hit by cars? Talk about the people who have lived through it — and those who haven’t.
Brian Hickey, a staff writer for Philly Voice, has been advocating for pedestrian safety since 2008 when he was the victim of a hit-and-run that put him into a coma. The driver who hit him was never found, but that hasn’t stopped Hickey from telling his story to create awareness.
“It helped in my case to get attention because I was a journalist so everybody in the media knew me,” he said during a panel at the inaugural Vision Zero Philadelphia Conference, “and my story got written about. By continuing to bang the drum about it, it’s harder for my peers to ignore.”
Putting a human face on social impact issues can be a powerful way to raise awareness and affect change, a topic that was discussed during the “Human Cost of Crashes” panel at the recent conference.
Vision Zero is an initiative in several U.S. cities that seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero by changing the conversation, infrastructure and policies about car-bike incidents.
New York City and San Francisco both have Vision Zero policies. Philadelphia has not yet adopted one, but the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, which hosted the conference with Thomas Jefferson University, has been advocating for the incoming mayoral administration to do so.
Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney, while speaking at Technical.ly’s Rise Conference earlier in the day, admitted he used to be an angry, anti-bicyclist city driver. (There was some self-imitating fist shaking involved.) But he’s come around and supports the Vision Zero policy, saying it will make the city “safer” and “more attractive.”
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Supporting the adoption of such a policy, a bill that would add $5 to vehicle registration fees for the purpose of directing that money to street safety initiatives will be voted on by City Council soon.
During the “Human Cost” panel, social advocate Caroline Samponaro said that telling the stories of hit-and-run victims and their families has been key to getting the mayor and people of New York City to embrace the ideas of Vision Zero.
“The humanity of the traffic violence problem is left out of the conversation in this country,” said Samponaro, who is Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s top transportation advocacy organization.
“The power of the voices of the victims will carry this culture change forward,” she said. “It’s not enough, but I think it is the spark that will keep this moving forward.”
The families of hit-and-run victims who spoke out in New York got the attention of the media and Mayor Bill De Blasio, she said. Samponaro’s group facilitated a meeting between the families and the mayor, and soon after De Blasio announced that his administration would have a Vision Zero policy, she said.
Samponaro also advised advocates to think carefully about language and terminology, which she said play a powerful part in how people think about an issue. For example, Vision Zero advocates prefer to use the word “crash” rather than “accident” to describe collisions between cars and cyclists or pedestrians, she said.
“Every time the word ‘accident’ is used, we disguise the humanity of the problem,” she said. “The word ‘crash’ doesn’t actually place blame. It’s a very matter-of-fact word. When we use the word ‘accident’ we actually are removing all responsibility, both from the driver [and] the system.”
Journalists on the panel said media are always looking for human stories.
Vinny Vella, a journalist who has done extensive coverage on hit-and-runs for Philadelphia Daily News, said he didn’t have a personal reason to report on hit-and-runs.
“I simply started writing about them because it was inexcusable, and what really jumpstarted the coverage was meeting the families,” he said.”
However, while the media wants human stories, they need social advocates’ help to find them.
“More and more newsrooms are shrinking,” said Vella, who himself lost his job in the recent large round of layoffs by Philadelphia Media Network. “When you have fewer people covering the city, it’s difficult.”
For resource-starved journalists, it’s helpful when advocates who already have established relationships with victims and their families can bring forward sources to interview, he said.
According to Hickey, when advocates bring forward stories of real victims, it “makes it harder for even a downsized newsroom to ignore, because it has all of the elements of the story right there.”