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How to misunderstand data

To say that data from a new report by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association have been “misunderstood” is to put it so kindly as to do a disservice to the word.

The report, Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State: 2010 preliminary data, examines preliminary fatality data that show that pedestrian fatalities did not fall during the first six months of 2010, compared to the first six months of 2009. In fact, there were seven more pedestrians killed nation-wide in that period in 2010 than in 2009, a 0.4 percent increase. This is news — not because the data reveal any kind of “spike,” as is being reported — but because motorist and bicyclist fatalities have been decreasing in recent years. The GHSA report says, “In contrast, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) early estimates are that overall traffic fatalities dropped 8% during this period.”

However, the facts, clearly laid out in the actual report, have not stopped some serious hyper-ventilating about the dangers of walking our country’s streets. The First Lady has even been dragged into it. The Washington Examiner published the following paragraphs:

First lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to get people to exercise outdoors might be a factor in an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths during the first half of last year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association…

But the “get moving” movement, led by Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to eliminate childhood obesity, could be to blame, Harsha told The Washington Examiner.

“There’s an emphasis these days to getting fit, and I think people doing that are more exposed to risk [of getting hit by a vehicle],” said Harsha, who conceded to having no scientific evidence that the Let’s Move campaign has led to an increase in walkers and runners, or deaths.

This angle was picked up by at least one other paper. Harsha says she was misquoted.

For all of the good work Michelle Obama is doing to fight against childhood obesity and to encourage people to be more active, I think it’s safe to say that she is a distraction in this story. It is, however, a fair question to ask why pedestrian fatalities are not declining on pace with motorized fatalities. There is probably not one single explanation. According to the Financial Management Information System, only six states (CA, FL, NJ, OH, VA, WA) obligated federal Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) funds to projects categorized as bicycle and pedestrians safety. Perhaps we need to re-examine how states are allocating safety funds. It is also true that Vehicle Miles Traveled are going back up. This doesn’t explain why motorized fatalities are not also rising, but it highlights the fact that people walking are more vulnerable to distracted, drunk, and speeding drivers than people in cars and trucks are.

Much has been made over very little. We’ll have to see if there is even an increase in pedestrian fatalities by the time all of the 2010 data are released.

GHSA pedestrian fatalities

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