Friday, October 1, 2010

Do laws against texting while driving reduce or increase car crashes?

You might think: of course those laws make the roads safer. But that's far from obvious (via):

Researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute compared rates of collision insurance claims in four states — California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington — before and after they enacted texting bans. Crash rates rose in three of the states after bans were enacted.

The Highway Loss group theorizes that drivers try to evade police by lowering their phones when texting, increasing the risk by taking their eyes even further from the road and for a longer time.

The findings "call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted-driving crashes," Lund says, calling for a strategy that goes beyond cellphones to hit other behaviors such as eating and putting on makeup. "They're focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it," he says.
But I'm skeptical of these conclusions as the article presents them. Look again at that sentence: "Crash rates rose in three of the states after bans were enacted." It doesn't tell us how much the rates rose. When journalists report on research that shows an increase or decrease in anything, I wish they'd tell us how big the increase or decrease was.

I've been noticing this a lot lately. For instance, this article tells us that religious people give "more" donations to charity and do "more" volunteer work; this one says religious people have "higher levels of 'life satisfaction.'" But they don't tell us how much more (or higher). If anything, I'd guess that the difference was fairly small; otherwise, the reporter probably would have wanted to quantify it in order to impress us with the finding.

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XWL said...

Sometimes the ommission of specifics might come down to space considerations, at least in this case, given that USA Today still has a print edition.

No excuse on the internet version, though, they should at the very least include links to the research, study, or press release used as a basis for the article.

The original Insurance Institute for Highway Safety press release shows some data, and there's a link there to a PDF with more information and analysis.

Feels more and more like most news articles are little more than repackaged (and often less informative) press releases. Better to seek the sources and get the spin from the horses mouths.

The bigger question is why would insurance companies seek to push back against anti-texting legislation?

My simplistic solution to get people to pay more attention to driving, is make vehicles more difficult to operate.

Remove automatic transmissions, power brakes, and power steering from the equation, and the amount of focus required to drive rises exponentially, along with a corresponding drop in the temptation to focus on distractions outside of driving safely.

Never happen, though. Folks like their moving living rooms, a shame they forget that F=ma.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Considering how over-written most news articles are, I doubt that what usually happens is that the reporters would have loved to share the details but they simply didn't have any room.

They could be much more informative with just a few extra characters, e.g. changing "gave more to charity" to "gave 5% more to charity." They'll leave out that kind of information but still have enough space to give several paragraphs of quotations to the effect of: "Yep, those were our findings! They certainly are interesting, aren't they?"

XWL said...

In most cases, you are right.

Too many journalist use weasel words, and nebulous comparatives rather than harder data to lead readers to the conclusion they want, rather than letting facts speak for themselves.

I assume it's a few parts laziness, a few parts seeing themselves as 'thought leaders' rather than gatherers of facts, and many parts contempt for their audience ('if only the masses would think like we do in the newsroom, the world would be a better place...').

The laziness extends all over the political map, too, facts are hard things to finesse, so best to leave them out of the equation.

John Althouse Cohen said...