By on December 30, 2010

[This piece, by John Carr, was originally published by the National Motorists Association]

When complaints grow too loud, reporters ask public safety agencies for reassurance that traffic law enforcement really is all for the best.

Accused of running a speed trap, the sheriff explained his speed enforcement cut fatal accidents from three or four per year to zero. Police said right-angle collisions were down by half at intersections with red light cameras. The Department for Transport proudly reported that road injuries were down 30% since the introduction of speed cameras.

This is all compelling evidence.

This is all lies.

The government has unique access to safety data. We have to go digging for it if we’re allowed to see it at all. Out of the countless lies told by government to justify regulations or enforcement, these three are among the very few that were independently fact checked.

Aren Cambre pulled the accident reports for Westlake, Texas and discovered that fatal accidents went up when the Sheriff started his speed trap. There were not 3-4 per year before, there were two in total in the previous six years. There were not zero after, there was an average of one per year. The death rate more than doubled.

An auditor asked Manitoba’s government monopoly insurance provider for claim records for Winnipeg. Accidents near cameras were way up. Serious accidents more than doubled and injuries were up 64%.

A researcher bypassed police statistics and checked hospital records to see how many people had been injured in car accidents. Serious injuries had not decreased, as the government claimed. They had increased. Police cut reported injuries by one third by simply not reporting them.

Both Winnipeg and the British government learned from their mistakes. Next time Winnipeg got accident statistics from the provincial insurer the city refused to release them to the public. We can guess what they say. The Department for Transport tried to suppress a study that showed speed cameras increased accidents in work zones.

Around 1990 the U.S. government sponsored a study on the effect of changing speed limits. When the study confirmed the well known result that numbers on signs do not do much of anything, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration refused to publish the report. Fortunately, NMA lobbyist Gail Morrison got her hands on a copy and passed it around Congress. The national speed limit was repealed soon after.

We call it cherry-picking. You pick and polish the evidence that supports you and try to bury the rest where nobody will find it.

When you see a statistic, ask yourself: is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Do I believe what they are telling me? Can I figure out what are they not telling me?

I’ll come back to this later. In the meantime, a puzzle:

I don’t care about reducing red light running or red light running crashes. Why not?

A clue: read about “proxy variables” in statistics.

[Courtesy: The National Motorists Association]

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31 Comments on “Lies Of Omission And Comission: The Truth About Speed And Safety Statistics...”

  • avatar

    Great commentary, thank you for writing it and publishing it.  This is a great reminder that regardless where you get a statistic, it likely is being nuanced in some manner not immediately obvious.
    When it comes to public officials one must be even more dubious: they have a reputation to uphold. Once they’ve taken a public stance they are not able to back down or compromise, thus we get poor policy that is unlikely to be properly adjusted.

  • avatar

    Alberta released a report publicly about accidents. In 93 pages there was not one mention of speed. So a reporter for the Calgary Sun dug up the unreleased data about speeding and accidents. The unreleased document stated  “Speed – 6.2% of total collisions involved one or more drivers indicated by the police as having been travelling at a speed too great for the given conditions.” Yet this factor in 6.2% of collisions was enforced to the tune of 88.8 million bucks. 80% of the ticket revenue for the province. Yes. It is a cash cow and I have no guilt about running my laser jammer and V1 to protect myself against such fines. And I don’t speed in the city…but I have jammed numerous lidar traps in reduced speed construction zones where no construction has started. That’s usual in Calgary. They reduce the speed a week before work starts and set up the traps then, when it still makes sense to do the original speed. Once the construction starts and the road has obstacles and workers are present they stop policing it. Likely because they don’t catch anyone speeding as it no longer makes intuitive sense to drive the original limit. They also like to keep the speed lowered a week or so after construction is finished. I passed a radar photo van once that was LITERALLY enforcing the lowered speed 4 hours before the speed limit was raised back to normal.

    • 0 avatar

      Those in power truly not reaize that this kind of conduct only erodes any trust that is left in people towards the authorities or that is exactly their purpose (yeah, conspiracy theories pile up, he-he).
      That naturally leads to:
      – all speed limits are irrelevant, why respect or observe them
      – why pay taxes, they will be misspent anyway,
      – why obey laws, since the authorities twist them all the time to their favor anyway and make themselves exempt,
      – why not steal/damage public property, the authorities are corrupt and steal from us all the time,
      – corruption eventually moves from the highest power levels where it’s been flourishing for ages, to the grass-roots level.
      And so it goes and goes…
      Having moved to Canada from far more challenging environments we especially are sensitivve to such changes. And they are happeing right now. Which is sad.

  • avatar

    NMA does really good work. They are also a useful resource for advice on fighting traffic tickets.

  • avatar
    M 1

    This is discussed often, but I’ve never seen anyone attempt to explain why accidents increase. Is it just because people are watching the camera, or surprised by the speed trap, or what? That aspect hasn’t made a lot of sense to me and I don’t recall seeing it addressed at all.

    • 0 avatar

      I read something where the main point was that people are focused on their speedometer, not the other vehicles around them. At red light cameras people slam on their brakes to avoid tickets and cause rear end collisions. But I am kind of with you…checking your speedometer should not be that distracting.

    • 0 avatar

      As I’ve read in several places (not to say it is necessarily accurate) the reason accidents increase around red light cameras and speed traps is that motorists will de-accelerate when other motorists would not expect it.
      This is true when a motorist stops abruptly when going through a red light would be safer, or when the cruising speed on the freeway drops 10+ miles per hour without notice (people see the police cars and drop speed to avoid getting ticketed).  In both cases, the drivers behind those motorists musts be paying very careful attention, be giving a wide berth, or will run a fair risk of contributing to an accident.  Given the percentage increase in accidents in these areas, you can probably figure out the percentage of motorists that drive defensively, attentively, or neither.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      Can’t speak for others, but I have done unsafe things specifically to avoid being noticed by the police officer.  Things like using the parking brake and engine braking to slow down without brake lights to slow down relative to the traffic behind me, passing on the right to be in the “slow” lane, and other selfish things under the “you don’t have to run faster than the bear” principle.  Now that highway speed limits have raised to 70mph, I continue to drive about 80mph, but without evasive maneuvers.

  • avatar

    I must respectfully disagree with David Holzman’s position on the National Motorists Association.  And not too many people put their money where their mouths are: the organization claims only about 6000 members as I recall.  I fully expect to get flamed for this, but I’m ready:

    The National Motorists Association operates under the guise of promoting the average motorist’s best interests. It touts itself as a voice for the common man (and woman) against the arbitrary dictates of federal, state, and local government with regard to traffic laws and regulations. In reality, it is an anti-scientific organization that would like to take highway safety back to the dark ages of the 1950s when all we did was exhort drivers to behave. Didn’t work then, certainly won’t work now.

    The NMA is against seat belt use laws, motorcycle helmet use laws, most speed limits (except those set by the fabled 85th percentile), photo radar, red light cameras, and the 0.08 drunk driving laws, among others. Any scientifically based study that counters their beliefs is lambasted.  This group may as well be run by shamans and witch doctors, and has the same philosophy as those head-in-the-sand organizations that want to take the teaching of evolution out of school curriculums.

    • 0 avatar

      Your argument is filled with ad hominem and exaggeration, and to call it unpersuasive would be entirely too charitable.
      Seriously, how much thought did you put into this? Shamans and witch doctors indeed.

    • 0 avatar

      One need not be against seat belt use and helmet use to oppose laws mandating them. Nor is there any sort of inconsistency with opposing public policies which have been proven over and over to be either ineffective or fraudulently imposed.

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s what the NMA stands for:
      It’s one thing to be libertarian, quite another to be anti-scientific.  I happen to agree with their positions.  For instance, the NMA agrees that seat belts save lives, but does not believe the government should force people to wear them.  That’s not unscientific; it is a statement about the role of government.  By the way, the NMA does support DUI laws, but modified.
      Government does play an important role in protecting citizens from things that they cannot control – foreign and domestic enemies, and developing safety regulations for mining, gas, electrical, building standards, and vehicle safety devices.
      As for the teaching of evolution, I’d recommend that the many weaknesses of that theory should be taught as part of a school curriculum, just as you’d tell a biker about the survivability of a motorcycle accident without a helmet.

    • 0 avatar

      The NMA is against seat belt use laws, motorcycle helmet use laws, most speed limits (except those set by the fabled 85th percentile), photo radar, red light cameras, and the 0.08 drunk driving laws, among others.
      I don’t agree with all NMA positions, but they raise valid issues regarding personal responsibility and driving.
      Photo radar and red light cameras are revenue scams.
      My dislike of drunk drivers is probably above average. I find their excuses lame. That said, the 0.08 BAC laws are a dodge (and a revenue raising device). It ignores the more serious problems of chronic drunks (and other crap drivers) who regularly skate through the system.
      The real head-in-the-sand organization is MADD. Ask any MADD activist/whack-job about mandatory sentences for chronic drunks and they’ll stare at their shoes and walk away.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      The NMA is against seat belt use laws, motorcycle helmet use laws, most speed limits (except those set by the fabled 85th percentile), photo radar, red light cameras, and the 0.08 drunk driving laws, among others.

      I can get behind that.  If you’re stupid enough not to wear your helmet then you deserve whatever happens.  I may enjoy riding scooters and motorcycles but I know by wearing a helmet and other protective gear I’m talking a more calculated risk.  If you don’t want to wear those things then that’s you demonstrating your stupidity to the whole planet.  I detest speed limits and see no reason that my driving should be dumbed down to the majority of the population who doesn’t know how to safely operate a motor vehicle above 35mph let alone 75mph.  (I don’t know how to solve that, I don’t know if the old 85% rule is how it should be done but something needs to happen.  Oh wait, it did, I bought a radar detector and now drive according to conditions unless cops are around.)  I wear my seat belt because I believe in it, if don’t wish to wear yours then that’s your choice.  I just hope all your affairs are in order.

    • 0 avatar

      “Your argument is filled with ad hominem and exaggeration, and to call it unpersuasive would be entirely too charitable.”

      Precisely the same can be said for the NMA article too. eg:

      “This is all lies.”

      Whilst this is completely misleading:

      “Aren Cambre pulled the accident reports for Westlake, Texas and discovered that fatal accidents went up when the Sheriff started his speed trap. ”

      The Aren Cambre blog linked, doesn’t draw that conclusion at all. In fact it draws a conslusion of no-correllation positive or negative. It certainly doesn’t conclude ‘speed trap in place ergo more fatal accidents’ , which is what the NMA is implying.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Educator(of teachers)Dan
      Your comments about hating speed limits and how you don’t want to be told how to drive etc. appall me.
      For a start, you are almost certainly nowhere near as good a driver as you think you are. We are all capable of making errors.
      Which brings up point two – even if you are a perfect driver at all kinds of speeds you are forced to share the road with a majority of people who are not at all perfect so you are still likely to end up suffering if only from their mistakes not your own.
      Speed per se may only slightly increase your chance of a crash (I won’t call it an “accident” because most are the result of poor driving) but it certainly increases the damage and mayhem that results.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I’m going to make a wild guess that you’re in Alberta, Canada.  If you make the journey south there’s someone that you should worry about far more than me if your willing to condemn speeders that quickly.  His name is Jack Baruth he regularly attains triple digits.  Even in my wildest teenage hooning days I never attained “ludicrous speed” and Jack’s series of articles did not give me the confidence to do so.
      What is important is to know your abilities.  Have you ever pulled a controlled power-slide in the snow in a GM G-body sedan?  Have you kept a B-body off the guardrail after hitting black ice?  Have you caused a GM A-body to leave the ground and brought it back down safely again?  Are you the go to person in your circle of friends and family when a destination needs to be reached rapidly?

    • 0 avatar

      @ Educator(of teachers)Dan
      I have no wish to feud with you but please allow me to just comment once more with, I assure you, no malice towards you whatsoever.
      I assume your response is meant to show what a good driver you are. In reality it does just the opposite. You may well be a very SKILLED driver but you are clearly not a GOOD driver. A good driver would not allow those kind of dangerous situations to develop on a public road. Driving close, or beyond, the limits of physics is just plain foolish.
      Lest you think I am somewhat “holier-than-thou”, please understand that I used to be just like you. Handbrake turns, power slides, the whole crazy gamut of young man, testosterone fueled lunacy. And, yes, I was a highly SKILLED driver but I know now that I was also a FOOL.
      One day, while driving relatively sedately but a bit fast, I made a tiny error which ended up with me upside down wearing a Honda as a necklace. And now I ride a wheelchair as a constant reminder of how rapidly things can go pear-shaped.
      Seriously Dan…you may be good but if you keep pushing the limits one day it will bite you in the ass.
      Happy New Year to you and all other readers.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I have no wish of a feud with you either, Sir.  I’ve been commenting on this site for about 3 years and have not made anyone here my enemy.  There might be a few who are mildly annoyed by me… but I digress.
      At my core I am a libertarian, the views I have espoused are in line with my political beliefs. I know it would not soothe you in anyway to tell you that I always drive according to conditions and sitting her in 9 degree F temps in Gallup, NM tonight about to go to my future in-laws to let their dog in and feed him that I am not about to exceed any posted limit between here and there (and I believe the highest posted is 40mph.)  I know it will do nothing for you too to know that I also drive based on the condition of the vehicle and it’s capabilities.  While the 10th generation F150 that I am about to go outside and fire up is well maintained it is no sports car and will not be driven as such.  In fact I usually stick to the posted limits in it just because of it’s inherent limitations.
      I drive faster then the posted speed because today’s cars are so capable at speeds well in excess of the posted one.  If you’re on a fairly empty hwy in the western US (or in western Canada for that matter) on a clear sunny warm day say behind the wheel of a Cadillac CTS, I’d wager (although you won’t catch me traveling at that speed) that traveling at 120mph would not be that stressful on either you or the machine.  Likely traveling at 120 in a new Caddy would be less stressful on you and the vehicle than going 70mph in the 1982 Chevy Celebrity that was my first car.
      To each his own.  You have a right to live your way and I will live mine.  The police have a right to enforce the law and try to catch me breaking it.  Do I think they have better things to do with their time than bust me for 90 in a 75?  Heck yes, but I can’t tell them what to do.  I promise not to go out and buy an F450 and drive it 100mph so if I happen to hit you I’m guaranteed to come out of it OK.  (There are people who do that you know.)
      BTW before taking a Central Office position I was a history and pol sci teacher.  “I have never in my life learned anything from a man who agreed with me.” – Dudley Field Malone  Hopefully each of us has come away from this discussion with food for thought, I know I have.

    • 0 avatar

      The NMA is against seat belt use laws, motorcycle helmet use laws, most speed limits (except those set by the fabled 85th percentile), photo radar, red light cameras, and the 0.08 drunk driving laws, among others.
      Sounds good to me!

  • avatar

    M1, a central issue is whether the increase in the number of accidents after installing cameras is statistically significant. The numbers are so small that I doubt that they are.

    Cherry picking data that fit your paradigm and ignoring data that do not is human nature. That is how programs are promoted or opposed in politics. Politicians first choose their position, then look for data that support it, and just as important, look for data that may help discredit the opposition. All other data are ignored.

    That is also why economists disagree so often (e.g. does a stimulus help the economy or not?). The sad thing is that there are data out there, and what is needed is an objective analysis, but unfortunately we never get that.

    • 0 avatar

      Politicians first choose their position, then look for data that support it, and just as important, look for data that may help discredit the opposition. All other data are ignored.

      You got it!  But the NMA does exactly the same.  If you look in the right places, however, there are objective studies out there in regard to highway safety, but the problem is letting go of your own strongly held beliefs.  In this field, “common sense” doesn’t always hold up!

    • 0 avatar

      @210delray: except the government stands to benefit from using public cherry picked data to support the draconian enforcement of unreasonable traffic laws.  What does the NMA have to gain by opposing them?

  • avatar

    I’ve read claims that when implementing red light cameras, the camera operating companies and municipalities that benefit from the revenue will sometimes shorten the length of the yellow light.  This serves to catch more red light runners (by creating them) but would theoretically also increase accidents if the delay between one side turning red and the other turning green isn’t increased to compensate.  Just throwing this out there as possible explanation for an increase in accidents, though I have no idea if it’s true or not. 

  • avatar

    I remember living in Colorado when the state went to 75 mph (1990?) and there was all of the typical dribble about more children were going to die from the state police as well as the local media. It wasn’t until a good 15 years later that death and accident rates were shown to have actually gone down as there was more consistency in speed between all vehicles, not to mention that the highways were able to handle more vehicles.
    I think about this every time I drive to work where the city I drive through keeps the speed limit at 55 mph on the highway. No one, not even the police drive the speed limit. But it gives them the opportunity to write as many tickets as they can like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m sure if anyone ever talked about raising it to what it should be… 65 mph, we’d hear the same dribble.

  • avatar

    The big issue where I live is not the enforcement of a law. A law is a law, and the law should be obeyed. Its when the law is applied unfairly to increase revenue. IE keeping, or applying early, a reduced construction zone speed limit when it’s not warranted (a construction zone speed limit before or after construction is happening) and then uber enforcing it to create revenue. And then the police are noticeably absent once the reduced speed is actually warranted. It amounts to you get a fine because the city posted a reduced limit, not because the reduced speed limit was warranted or required. It’s an abuse of power in my mind. The police may as well post a red light on a one way highway and ticket people who run it even though there is no intersection present. Just because the red light is there does not mean it should be and the same argument can be applied to construction zone speed limits. Where I live anyways. Odd that the signs in Alberta with a sad looking kid on it saying “my dad works here, don’t speed” always go up AFTER the speed has been reduced for a week with no construction and AFTER police stop enforcing the zone because people will slow down when the road has construction related obstacles. The application of laws change to generate revenue and that’s what annoys me, not that the laws themselves are enforced.

  • avatar

    In Philadelphia, people run lights all the time.  It is dangerous – very dangerous.  Even in multilane red light controlled intersections, people apparantly are not paring attention.  Or are intentionally actring dumb.   I beleive that because people are so outraged by these flagrent law breakers, they welcome red light cameras.  It seemas a way too catch the bad guys.

    In reality, on one of these multi lane traffic controlled intersections, one of the poster children about what is right about about  cameras, there are problems.  If you are stuck in the intersection cause the knucklehead in front of you suddenly stops, you get a ticket.  If the light changes yellow as you approach the intersection, chances are that it will turn red before you get out of it.  You get a ticket.  So you can decide to SLAM on your brakes when u are partially into the interesction, and have the tailgaiter in back of you plow into u, or risk said ticket. 

    And I suppose, worst of all, one is forced to pay way too much attention to the traffic signals and camera locations, and not enough attention to the other travellers and road conditions.  It is not safe. 

    I thought it was a good idea at the time too.  I no longerr do.  We have to come up with something different to discourage traffic menaces.  I dont know what that is.

    As to the National Motorists Assoc.,  their hyperbole is appraoching biblical.  Yes there are problems.  No, it is not some giant gumment inspired racket (of well it is, but thats another story). 

    I would have them turn down the rhetoric, they might be taken more seriously.   Now, they are just another screeching bobblehead, in a forest of screeching bobbleheads.

    • 0 avatar

      If you are stuck in the intersection cause the knucklehead in front of you suddenly stops, you get a ticket.  If the light changes yellow as you approach the intersection, chances are that it will turn red before you get out of it.  You get a ticket.
      What a ridiculous system!  Here in Saskatchewan, if you get a red light ticket in the mail it shows a photo of your vehicle about to enter the intersection while red, and a photo shortly after of your vehicle driving through the red.

    • 0 avatar

      “If you are stuck in the intersection cause the knucklehead in front of you suddenly stops, you get a ticket.”

      And rightfully so. The law requires you don’t enter an intersection unless you can safely proceed through it. I hate when people do that, too. If the light changes and you’re in the intersection I think your car should immediately be impounded and your license revoked. There’s just no excuse for that.

  • avatar
    Rick Ferrari

    It kills me when I see those propaganda commercials on how “speed” kills. No, speed does not kill. The lack of driver consideration, the lack driver skill and the lack of driver attention kills. Speed can contribute to the severity of an accident, but speed does not kill.
    Traffic light cameras in some cases are good, because some drivers just dont give a damn. The problem with traffic light cameras, are the drivers who are already too cautious. Traffic light cameras makes their condition worst. Cameras will cause them to slam on their brakes—sometimes as soon as the light changes to yellow—stopping when they could have simply rolled through the intersection.
    If the driver behind knows that the person can easily make it through, they are not expected an abrupt stop. CRASH! Then you have an accident, one in which the driver behind might be charged when the situation was perpetrated by the driver in front.

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