July 17, 2012
Don't be Distracted by Sketchy Statistics
Dave Breakenridge, Calgary Sun, July 16, 2012
Enact a ban on distracting behaviours behind the wheel -- cellphones, makeup, eating, etc. -- and you'll create a safe-driving utopia.
Simple as that, right? Not so fast.
While proponents would like to suggest that a law will simply change behaviours, the reality is far different.
A report out of Manitoba late last week would seem to back up the fact that distracted driving legislation, while making people feel better, doesn't prevent deaths.
According to the study from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, highway deaths in Manitoba were up to 110 in 2011, a jump from 73 in 2010.
So, despite a ban on cellphone use while behind the wheel, Manitoba saw a 50% jump in collisions in 2011.
So much for the notion that there is a correlation between distracted driving and road deaths.
But this is an attitude that prevails.
Once a law is passed, all will be better.
Last month, a city police spokesman was trumpeting the success of Alberta's distracted driving law because total crashes were down.
As was suggested, the drop in total crashes on Calgary roads for the last quarter of 2011, and the first quarter of 2012 -- the first six months under the new tough provincial law -- was likely due to the ban.
"I personally believe that's the reason," police spokesman Kevin Brookwell told our Michael Platt.
This assertion was based on the 9,434 wrecks for the last three months of 2011 and the 10,130 collisions for the first three months of the year.
Both were down when compared to the same time periods the previous year, before the distracted driving ban was in place.
New law and a drop in crashes following the new law means the law is a success.
If only it were that simple.
For last-quarter numbers, we may have seen a 4,000-crash drop in 2011, but there was a reduction of 2,000 crashes between 2009 and 2010, after a couple of years of gains.
And as for the first quarter, crashes had been declining and rising before dropping two years in a row for 2011 and 2012.
But some of those declines came before the law was in place, so is a further decline due to the law, or other factors.
Crashes across the province -- fatality, injury and total -- had been in decline before this law came into effect, so I'm curious how Alberta officials will measure success.
THROW OUT NUMBERS
Look, someone can throw out a couple of numbers and suggest a law is a success or a failure.
But the report out of Manitoba goes further into fatal crashes, and causes, and suggests that other factors are at play, beyond whether people could get a ticket for talking while driving.
"Correlation does not imply causation. After all, there are many factors involved in collisions," the report says.
"However, the increase in collisions and fatalities seems particularly suspicious, given that collisions attributed to drinking, drugs and speeding were lower in 2011 than in 2009.
"It is also worth noting that deaths attributed to alcohol, drugs, lack of seatbelts, speeding and intersections were all down in 2010, when the number of collisions dipped. None of these has anything to do with distracted-driving legislation."
A spike in fatal crashes in Manitoba may be a one-off, and Calgary may see a further decline in fender benders.
But hopefully reports like this make people think twice about suggesting our local law is a roaring success.
Because I'm still not convinced.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."