by Martha Roskowski May 3, 2019 in News

Guest Post: The Power of a Polite Note

Photo by Aaryn Kay

Achieving a goal of zero traffic deaths and severe injuries, known as Vision Zero, is life-saving work. Much of the work requires big changes: revamping institutional culture, addressing systemic inequities and shifting public perceptions. To do this, we draft policies, launch programs, build coalitions, write reports, testify and protest. With every crash we redouble our efforts. Reluctance to change is entrenched in agency budgets, policy and priorities and in engineering practices focused on moving as many cars as quickly as possible. But sometimes, especially outside of traditional transportation bureaucracy, a small action can make a difference.

A few weeks ago, an email from the principal of my twins’ middle school derailed my morning.

Dear Families,

This morning, while bicycling to school, one of our students was involved in an accident with a car near [a school on my kid’s route to their school]. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, as a precaution, and is being treated for minor injuries – mostly scrapes and bruises. We are happy to share that she is going to be okay.

We are unsure if any other students saw the accident or the emergency response, but wanted to share this information with our community so that you are able to speak with your students, especially if they have questions. Additionally, it is a good opportunity to remind them about safely walking and bicycling to and from school.

First, I confirmed that it wasn’t my daughter. Then, I worried about the girl who was hit. Then, I got annoyed about the note for two reasons. Fellow travellers on the Vision Zero quest can probably point them out. So I wrote back:

Thank you for this information. I will certainly talk with my kids about biking safely, as they ride nearly every day. I would also encourage you to use this opportunity to remind parents to drive slowly and carefully around schools. I frequently witness dangerous driving in their haste to get their kid to school.

Also note that the accepted professional language is to use the word “crash” rather than “accident” as crash is more descriptive and does not assume the incident was unavoidable.

To my surprise, the principal responded quickly:

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and providing this feedback. I will remind parents again of their part in maintaining a safe journey for our students, both to and from school. I work with District communication staff on how we send out information to our community, and there was a discussion about using the word crash versus accident. It was determined that we believed that the words could be used interchangeably for this situation. I will provide your feedback to my team.

This looked like an opportunity. I did a quick bit of on-line searching. I wrote back with a message to their aspirational side.

Re crash or accident, the federal government suggests using the word crash here. Leaders of a nationwide effort to improve traffic safety, called Vision Zero, make the case for crash rather than accident. From their website:

“Individuals, agencies and media outlets have already made commitments to using crash not accidents. Police departments in New York City and San Francisco have modified their language. And, thanks to #CrashNotAccident advocacy from Families for Safe Streets and Transportation Alternatives, the Associated Press Stylebook issued guidance to reporters to avoid using the word accident because it “can be read as exonerating the person responsible.”

I know [the school district] takes safety seriously so perhaps you would share this note with the communications staff. Simple changes in language can be remarkably powerful in catalyzing broader change.

A few days later, the principal sent an e-mail to 600 families:

Earlier this week, you should have received communication from me that shared of a crash between a car and one of our students on a bicycle. I want to report that the student is doing well. The communication included information you can discuss with your child around safely biking and walking to school. I would like to also remind those of us who are driving to play our part in making sure our children have a safe commute to and from school. When driving near schools, please slow down and be on the lookout for students crossing the street. We are equally responsible for the safety of our children.

The principal changed his language from accident to crash and included drivers in his words of caution. To his immense credit, this educator was willing to listen and learn from a parent in the school community about our shared concern for the safety and health of all children.

Anyone can write a short, polite note when the opportunity arises. I encourage everyone to do it, both for the satisfaction of small victories in this landscape of hard work and because small shifts lay the groundwork and build momentum for the systems change we need.

Martha Roskowski helps agencies and organizations develop mobility strategies through her company Further Strategies. She serves on the Vision Zero Network Advisory Committee.


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