Whenever a photograph of a deadly car crash is published in our newspaper, it's inevitable that the telephone will ring in my office.
It happened again recently. A young woman, obviously distressed, voiced her anger about a page 1 photo showing the demolished car in which a 35-year-old man was killed. The photo showed three police officers inspecting the wreckage.
The crumpled and twisted metal left no doubt as to the horrific nature of the crash. The crash occurred when one vehicle went through a stop sign and smashed into a delivery truck.
The caller said her family is friends with the deceased manís family. The photo caused pain, she told me.
"Do you really need to show the car that the person died in?" she asked. "How would you feel if this was someone you knew?"
Two years ago, our newspaper published a crash photo in which a young teen, 17, died on a wintry county road. She was driving home after watching a hockey game in a nearby town. The teen was a girl I had coached since novice hockey, someone I had driven to many games over the years.
Iíll never forget receiving a call from a police officer telling me that a media release about a teen killed in a crash was on its way. When the release arrived in my e-mail inbox and I saw the teenís name, I was stunned. Then came the tears.
What purpose did the crash photo serve?
Personally, I never again thought twice about telephoning teens to cancel a hockey game due to snow-covered roads.
Only weeks before the deadly crash, another teen protested my cancellation of a game.
"Itís fun driving in the snow," I remember her saying.
None of us are invincible.
A newspaper photograph of accident wreckage reinforces that point. No matter how painful at the time. Itís a reminder that danger exists on the road. Itís a reminder to take extra caution at intersections, look both ways before proceeding at stop signs or traffic lights. And itís a reminder that could save a life in the future. Perhaps, your life.
Sensationalism has nothing to do with why newspapers publish crash photos. The goal is not to cause grief for families. Car crashes are part of the reality of driving. They happen. And when they happen it's news.
Why is it news? Humans are a curious species. We want to know what's happening in our communities. We want to know why an ambulance and two police cars were racing down the highway the previous day. (Interestingly, when car crashes are not reported by the media, phone calls also come in to the editor's desk asking why local news is not being covered).
Car crash photos also help us learn.
We learn the potential consequences of not wearing a seat-belt.
We learn what may happen if we fall asleep at the wheel.
And we learn what can happen when the rules of the road are disobeyed.
Imagine a country where newspapers or television news stations never show photos of fatal accidents involving drunk drivers. Would the public really be aware of the deadliness of drinking and driving?
Even police know the visual power of wreckage. They frequently use smashed vehicles as part of education efforts on safe driving. More than once, a smashed vehicle (one in which someone died) has been placed on the lawn of a local high school to warn teens of the dangers of drinking and driving.
My wifeís cousin was killed instantly in a car crash. The home-town newspaper published a photo of the crumpled car. It was traumatic to look at, my wife remembers, but she says it was necessary. The newspaper photo helped her to understand what happened. Today, that powerful image is in the back of her mind when she gets behind the wheel. Defensive driving might save her life one day.
Hopefully, after seeing a photo of a deadly car crash, drivers will take extra precautions when on the roads.
Two months from now, you may again let your guard down. Then the point will unfortunately be driven home again when another photo of a fatality is published.
Yes, the photos can be painful to look at, but theyíre necessary. As a helpful reminder for everyone -- whether you work for a newspaper or not -- to take care when on the roads.