Stupid Stats


A quick one this morning.

The BBC is running a story about a campaign by road safety charity Brake to ban the use of hands-free mobiles on the road.

They’ve a few studies and numbers to back up their campaign, and I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of it because in five or fifty years time we might well find they’re right and countless lives could have been saved if we’d listened.

Their principal statistical argument, though, is downright bizarre. I’ve set it down here to save you the trouble of actually navigating to another page, as that might reduce your powers of concentration.

Brake said a Freedom of Information request showed more than 500,000 people had points on their licence for using a phone or being otherwise distracted.

What the hell is that supposed to tell us?

In an earlier version of the story, the fact that 6% of this half million had committed more than one such offence was also cited as “powerful evidence” of the dangers of driving in this way.

Well, forgive me, but isn’t this a bit like saying we should ban satsumas because millions of people are eating easy-peel oranges?

Maybe I’ve missed the point. Please let me know if I have. But the central argument surely has to be that it’s dangerous to talk on the phone. Even the hands-free. If they’d managed to provide a statistic that the people who’d been caught in some distracting behaviour had actually had an accident, or were more likely to, then fine – and maybe they have, maybe that’s buried somewhere in the back of the report, a clear statistical correlation between traffic accidents and phones. But it’s not there, not right up there on the front page. Instead all they’re telling us is that the existing law criminalises nearly one per cent of the population of the country, more than one per cent of the population that can drive, and rather than prove that it was worth it, that lives have been saved, they’re just asking us to add some more.

Incidentally, their response to the oft-quoted argument that “hands-free phones are no more dangerous than having a conversation with the person sitting next to you in the car” is that “a significant proportion of conversation relies on body language”. I think someone should tell them this makes the phone safer, not more dangerous, because unlike the person sitting next to you, you’re not going to be looking at the phone trying to read some additional meaning into the way its buttons look today.

I’m all in favour of road safety. I really am. But if someone tries to convince me they’re right by throwing random numbers at me that don’t have the slightest bearing on their argument, I’m not going to let them get away with it.

That’s your lot, anyway. Sorry. Just annoyed me, is all.


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