• The M4 disaster near Hungerford on 14 March showed
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how media coverage of road accidents can vary. Both the Daily Mirror and The Daily Express claimed in their front page reports that a tanker carrying liquid propane gas had been the major factor in the deaths of 10 motorists. The Express reporter wrote: "Most of the victims were incinerated when a lorry carrying propane gas exploded and sprayed the area with flaming debris." The Daily Mirror, under the banner headline 'Into the Fireball', talked of a "fireball of death" and a "mass graveyard" before echoing the Express view that the root cause of the accident was a tanker. "Cars and lorries were fused together by the searing heat, fuelled by explosions from a truck load of propane gas cylinders."
The Star described the tragedy as a 'meltdown' caused by an exploding "lorry carrying propane gas".
However, the Daily Telegraph reported that the propane gas had not exploded by the time rescue workers had arrived on the scene and that three hours after the crash more than 50 firemen were cutting their way through the wreckage "despite the risk of explosion from propane gas cylinders on one of the lorries".
. "Police said the pile-up appeared to have been caused initially by a car or van hitting the central reservation and spinning back into the path of oncoming traffic," reported the Telegraph.
The Independent report did not even mention lorries. Instead it talked about the dangers of fuel spills posed by the brittle metals and plastics used in passenger car fuel tanks.
"The fireball that erupted in the M4 disaster was almost certainly due to fuel spillage, motor industry experts said," ran the report. No talk of rogue propane gas carrying juggernauts here.
Underpinning even the misleading reports is the real cause of the crash — cars travelling too fast in thick fog — which could well have been exacerbated by the decision of the Thames Valley Police not to activate the M4's matrix warnings against the hazard.