It may be fashionable to criticize the media at this particular moment, and I loathe jumping on that bandwagon, but contrary to popular belief a lot of bad reporting isn't the result of the reporter's ideological bias. From what I can tell, a large swath of bad reporting is because the reporter who has no idea what they're talking about.
We can clearly this phenomenon when a news report blames a traffic accident on some kind of bad weather. It's not uncommon to hear reports that declare, "Ice Causes 50 Car Pile-Up," or "Fog Causes Fatal Accident." I realize that in order to quickly convey information, inanimate objects often substitute as a short-hand for the actions of people, but many reports actually attribute fatalities to the elements, not to human action.
The problem with this kind of reporting is that it doesn't accurately reflect reality and misleads people. Ice, fog, and other calamities don't sneak into people's homes, snatch them away from their beds, place them into vehicles, and then crash those vehicles on our roadways. While fog, ice, and other weather conditions do make our roads more treacherous, in almost every accident, a driver behind the wheel failed to properly account for those conditions and caused the accident.
February 7, 2017, Texas 359 Laredo Truck Accident
According to news reports, around 7 in the morning, a semi-truck driver failed to control his speed and collided with the back of a passenger vehicle that was turning into a driveway, along Highway 359. The force of the impact caused the truck to ricochet into oncoming traffic, where it struck a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction.
While there is no word about possible injuries to the 46-year-old truck driver, Maria Buentello Cremar, 93, Maximo Cremar, Jr, 74, Oralia Morin Cremar, 66, and Norberto Torres Sanchez, 46 were all killed in the accident.
Other than the basic facts of the accident, all of the news reports I came across mentioned that there was heavy fog in the area at the time of the accident. A couple of them, especially the local television reports, went so far as to suggest that "fog was to blame" for this accident.
Such reporting is factually incorrect. While fog may have made Highway 359 a more dangerous place to drive, the cause of the accident was the truck who slammed into the back of a turning vehicle.
There's No Such Thing as a Fog Defense
It may seem like I'm making a big deal out of semantics, but the way accidents are reported ends up having real-world consequences. The people who see news reports that blame the weather for an accident, also end up being the same people who sit on juries. This means that because of an inaccurate journalistic short-hand, the public is not only misinformed about an accident, but they're predisposed to believe that misinformation.
Generally speaking, the law rarely allows us to blame accidents on the weather. Certainly, sudden and unforeseen events can come out of nowhere and trigger collisions, but such accidents are exceptionally rare. The weather conditions that make traffic accidents more likely generally just don't pop up out of the blue. When unpredictable situations occur, the law affords defendants what is know as the Act of God Defense.
In the vast majority of accidents where weather played a role, the inclement weather takes time to develop. Fog generally occurs in the evening or early morning, gradually building up over time. Even snow and ice just don't instantly appear on a roadway.
Legally speaking, fog doesn't usually cause accidents. If it did, then our roadways would be a free-for-all anytime there was inclement weather. Rather than accepting a Purge-like pandemonium on our highways, the law has a simple solution to the problem. We expect people to drive differently. Whether it is rain, snow, or fog, the common sense advice that every driver is given in any inclement weather is to slow down.
How much should a driver slow down? No one ever says, because a driver is expected to slow down enough to navigate the conditions of the road safely. Contrary to the perception that our laws are rigid and filled with contingencies for every situation, our common law heritage is surprisingly elastic. The basic duty of a driver, to operate their vehicle in a safe manner that doesn't injure others, is applicable regardless of the weather.
This ingenious flexibility means that as the weather gets worse, we're expected to slow down to whatever speed allows us to safely drive. There even comes a point when no speed reduction can make it safe to drive, at which point, a driver should pull off of the side of the road and wait for the conditions to improve.
There is never a point, no matter how bad the weather, where a driver isn't responsible for driving safely.
To see how truly absurd it is to blame an accident on weather conditions, let's take driving out of the equation. Suppose I'm out hunting on a foggy day. I make something out in the distance that I believe to be an animal and pull the trigger. It turns out that wasn't an animal at all, but a person that I end up shooting. Would anyone in their right mind let me blame my negligence on the weather? Is their a "fog defense" for accidental shootings?
Of course not. Part of operating a firearm in a responsible manner is to not only be certain what the target is, but also what's behind the target in case there's a miss. Any reasonable person would know that if the fog prevented me from clearly discerning what I was shooting at, I had a duty not to pull the trigger. I cannot envision a news report that would attribute an accidental shooting to fog.
However, when we add cars to the equation, people, including reporters, lose the clarity of thought that would easily be applied to a gun accident. I suppose some of this can be chalked up to the feeling that we have to get places, whereas outside of certain self-defense situations, no on has to fire a gun. A shooter can always wait for better weather, but I have to get to wherever I am supposed to be. If fog gets in the way and I cannot safely navigate it, certainly the fog is to blame?
Beyond how the role that media reports can play in biasing potential jurors into believing that an accident can normally be blamed on the weather, there is a much greater problem with inaccurate reporting; It obscures the duty that each and every one of us owes to drive our vehicles safely, regardless of road conditions.
The most basic duty we owe to one enough is to behave in a conscientious manner that doesn't endanger others. It is from this principle that all other legal duties stem. As I've mentioned, circumstances can intervene that make it impossible to perform our duties, but these circumstances never override the duty.
The next time you hear a news report that blames an accident on the weather, take that report with a huge grain of salt.