NYT: "The Truth About Cars and Cellphones"

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Very funny, guys. We get it. The Truth About Cars takes you to task for your shoddy “investigative” report into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA). You respond with an editorial called “ The Truth About Cars and Cellphones.” Inside joke or not, we stand by our condemnation. First, conflating cell phone use with other distractions—excoriating drivers who “juggle hot coffee and a Mc-whatever or attend to personal grooming in the rearview mirror”—is both lazy AND stupid. Second, repeating your dubious charges—that the NHTSA bent to political pressure instead of faithfully discharging its duties—does not make them so. And third, semantics are the second-to-last refuge of a scoundrel. To wit:

What we want to know is: Since when did trying to save lives constitute lobbying?

The NHTSA has an approved protocol for commissioning research, analyzing the results, updating members of the safety community (including the relevant state authorities), making recommendations for corrective action (when needed) and creating automotive safety legislation. I would say that subverting that system—which is exactly what the Times is suggesting should have occurred—constitutes lobbying (in the negative sense).

Is it the NHTSA’s place to “advise” states to amend or create driving laws before the federal agency has conclusive evidence that any such amendment or new law is A) warranted and B) effective? Lest we forget, ALL states have laws against dangerous driving or driving while distracted. The NHTSA was not preventing any state from creating a new law OR enforcing existing laws. It was investigating the dangers of driving while yakking on the cell—as it does many risk factors—in a methodical manner.

Six years later, the Transportation Department advises drivers to avoid cellphones except in emergencies. But far too many Americans now consider phoning while driving to be standard behavior. The department estimates that roughly 12 percent of drivers are on the phone at any given time — twice the estimate of its own researchers when their effort to document the risks was rebuffed.

Hyperbole, lax reporting, bias, innuendo and a cheap shot at TTAC. Nice work, guys.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • U mad scientist U mad scientist on Jul 26, 2009
    They used whatever assumptions that they had to figure out how many might be due to phones. They probably measure this in the "naturalistic" studies the deniers keep referring to. It's kind of funny they think the NHTSA is on one "side" of this issue, when their report seem to use pretty fair numbers, the best available at that time. --- Now apply the other figures, and we’re left with 12% of the population doing 2% of the killing, and 88% of the population doing the remaining 98%. Absolutely no other way to look at it. Just because you lack the facilities to understand how math and statistics work doesn't mean the rest of world is sharing the same fate. The logical error here is that using their model, the "remaining 98%" also contains contributions from the "12%" (should be around 12%), but because of way they calculate the diff, only the "2%" is considered to be added on by cell usage. Note I put the percentages in quotes, because you are continuing to make the less serious, but still persistent mistake of using 12% when the estimate above uses a 6% usage assumption as I noted above. I would encourage anyone else confused by this to really think patiently about the missing dollar "paradox" above. It's a perfect illustration of a similar problem, but only uses simple integers instead of stat models. Coming to terms to with different ways numbers are used is greatly beneficial in modern society. Numbers are not just things you can interchange at will, they have different meanings even in slight different context.
  • U mad scientist U mad scientist on Jul 26, 2009

    PS. Since I guess we can't exactly count on pch101 to fess up to his error, I'll put the sheer magnitude of it out there. If we assume the numbers he uses, in transitioning from the risk factor model to the model in his head, the total fatalities attributable to the "12%" talkers should be about 14% instead of 2%, or about 7 times off. This would be considered quite egregious. In other words, if we are to phrase it the way pch does, the sentence should read: Now apply the other figures, and we’re left with 12% of the population doing 14% of the killing, and 88% of the population doing the remaining 86%. (Note that the "14%" would not be a precise value because of other correlation factors involved, which I guess would be part of the reason why pch101-head's hillbilly model is not used for such purposes)

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