Statistics - Taking Account

Understated elegance and a great drive: Jaguar XF 2.2 diesel
Stopping changing the clocks could save 80 lives a year. It is a pity the Institute of Advanced Motorists has fallen prey to presumption. It issues a press release with a statistic which, whatever happens, is no more than an airy heading. This is the stock-in-trade of lobbyists, cranks, fraudsters and well-meaning charities. The IAM is quoting 1998 research by the TRRL at Crowthorne, a Report 368 by Broughton and Stone titled, “A new assessment of the likely effects on road accidents…”

Note, “assessment” and “likely”. Thirteen years ago its authors were cautious.

“Lives saved” has resonance. Smoking bans achieved it but let’s insert “countless” before “lives”. Estimates like this attract publicists because they are unchallengeable, one way or the other. Anti-smokers bandied figures; 5,000, 10,000 deaths prevented through reducing lung cancer and heart disease, I can’t remember. But there was no accounting for side effects. Addictive smokers took to drink; cirrhosis increased. They over-ate; obesity is epidemic. The balance of probability still supports anti-smoking but propagandists should be more measured.

Remember the campaign against driving with hand-held phones. “Lives saved” estimates were rampant. Who knows now? Lives probably have been saved. But others may have been lost because a reassuring call advising of lateness was never made. Motorcycle crash helmets were made compulsory following crusades, with guesses on lives that would be saved. The principle was probably right, head injuries were reduced but the legislation never took account of necks broken by heavy helmets. Nobody knows how many. A deliberate approach, taking account of the unexpected and never ignoring both sides of an equation is required, instead of bullying and hectoring, frightening legislators by overbearing claims. Climate scientologists and electric car zealots take note.

Caution campaigners. Seat belts and airbags have saved lives but let us not be misled by the guesswork and emotive language of safety lobbyists over-reaching themselves in pursuit of a headline.

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