I heard today news that the sister of a motoring journalist contact was killed in a terrible train accident last week. As the Guardian reported, this was the third such fatality in two days. Although unrelated, naturally, the tragedies become connected by their proximity in time.
For many of us these incidents are just news. Something we hear about whilst going about our lives, a story we may discuss with others or that maybe makes us stop and think for a minute.
Like Teresa Mansell, I regularly walk my dogs across a railway line near my house. It is frightening as you check there are no trains coming, but still have to negotiate over the tracks, knowing there is a real risk to your life.
Such tragedies may help communicate safety messages, making the possible a reality whilst accidents remain newsworthy. Real life cases communicate very powerfully.
Those involved in communications at Network Rail have a message that “level crossings are safe if used correctly”, but their words seem insensitive in the face of a series of fatalities:
Every year, over 1,800 pedestrians and motorists are reported to have misused a crossing. Tragically some people are injured or killed primarily because they have made an error, deliberately made a violation or have become complacent about using the crossing.
In the past few days, words have been important to me, with friends and strangers equally expressing their condolences with kindness and empathy. Many people say they don’t know what to say, or simply, state, I’m sorry.
The words quoted above lack any compassion – they are a cold presentation of statistics and blame avoidance. They do not reflect any sense of corporate responsibility from Network Rail, with its action all about awareness raising, understanding of correct use and “user behaviour” change.
Of course, the issue of railway crossing safety is difficult, sensitive, and hard to solve – but producing copy for the website shouldn’t have just been another writing task, just words to be uploaded, a corporate reputation to be protected.
Writing is a human task, conveying meaning through words and so we should always put thought into their construction.