January 2010

In July, I griped here about misleading news reports of a higher crash risk among texting truckers than among non-texting ones. I pointed out that the research quoted had not shown an increased crash risk, and in fact observed fewer crashes (zero, in fact) among the texting truckers. The data might suggest a decreased crash risk among texting truckers, I noted. The reason for the confusion was that crashes and near-crashes (which included sudden and possibly crash-preventing maneuvers) hadn’t been separated in the calculations. Nevertheless, the increased crash-or-near-crash risk was widely reported as an increased crash risk. I wondered whether more near crashes might in fact be a positive thing; those who occasionally swerve suddenly might be paying more attention to the road than those who rarely do.

Today, researchers and others are expressing surprise that just-in real crash data doesn’t support what they don’t realize the earlier research didn’t show in the first place. For example:

If researchers (or journalists) are surprised by today’s news, they probably didn’t examine the research very closely. They may have believed the misleading headlines instead.

Disclaimers: I haven’t read all the research, and some studies might have in fact shown an increased crash risk, unlike the one I mentioned. That might be reason for real surprise. In addition, today’s data doesn’t specifically show that less phone use means no fewer accidents, because laws don’t always change behavior. But some of the reports I read did suggest that there was less phone use, yet no lower crash rate, in places that instituted bans.

Ironically, the crash data out today could make things worse. If drivers think phone use while driving is not as unsafe as previously thought, they might be less careful when using a phone while driving, and phone-related crashes might increase. Common sense suggests that multitasking requires greater concentration. If you do use a phone while driving, drive with even more care than usual. In other words, this might be one situation where being wary might have benefits, even when its not warranted by the facts – especially because being somewhat over-cautious while driving has no serious down side, it seems to me. (It’s not like it infringes upon hundreds of millions of people’s civil rights, like acting on other unwarranted fears can and does…)

A headline in today’s Washington Post is “Fewer Americans think Obama has advanced race relations, poll shows.” My statistics students know what I have to say about that: “fewer than what?” Yes, headlines are generally false, and the Post reports the statistics somewhat more carefully in the article. “On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration a year ago, nearly six in 10 Americans said his presidency would advance cross-racial ties. Now, about four in 10 say it has done so.”

According to the actual poll results, a year ago, 60 percent of Americans answered “help” to the question “Do you think Obama’s presidency will do more to (help) or more to (hurt) race relations in this country, or not make much of a difference?” Last week, 40 percent of Americans answered “help” TO A DIFFERENT QUESTION: “Do you think Obama’s presidency has done more to (help) or more to (hurt) race relations in this country, or has it not made much of a difference?”

Big deal. Not a story. Fewer Americans today also think they have died than thought last year that they would die.