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Fudging the Numbers



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National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman has a column in the Washington Post this morning attempting to justify the agency’s recommendation that the U.S. ban all cell phone use in cars. I was familiar with the piece, as it was posted on the NTSB website yesterday when I was writing this column. 

But Ms. Hersman is engaging in some numbers fudging. The almost identical article, posted online, contained this sentence in which she clearly claimed that texting caused 3,000 deaths last year:

 And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.

When I phoned the agency yesterday to ask where the 3,000 figure came from — and whether it included all distractions (including rubbernecking, eating, adjusting the CD player, etc). An agency public affairs person said it did. 

Well, in that case, Hersman was misrepresenting the numbers. I had looked at the NTSB’s data on distracted driving, which is where you’ll find the 3,000 figure, and learned that of the distracted driving deaths, only 995 were attributable to cell phone use. 

This morning’s Washington Post piece changes the wording ever so slightly to avoid an outright lie:

In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.

It’s a small difference, but a significant one. The NTSB is attempting to “save” us from a wildly exaggerated threat at the price of incredible convenience and efficiency.



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