Why You Shouldn’t Believe Information Reported in the Media

by Stephen Mills on December 10, 2012

This article is not a 20 second read and that is the point.  You can’t explain something complex without spending some time on it.  A couple of weeks ago I was moving around in the house in the morning with the TV tuned to the Today show.  I heard them introduce a story with something along the lines of “We are used to seeing the stories of elderly drivers putting the car in drive instead of reverse or stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake and driving through a store front.  But are elderly drivers really unsafe drivers?”.  I probably have that wrong, but that captures the gist of it.  Basically the story went on to promote how safe elderly drivers are  by quoting some statistics saying drivers over 65 cause fewer crashes than other age groups.  The shocker was that they brought in a 97 year-old man as the poster boy for safe elderly drivers!

I’m positive that 97 year-old drivers are not safe drivers as a group.  It’s simply a matter of physiology  Brain processing speed, ability to deal with complex situations, flexibility, vision, quickness in movement, and many other things that significantly degrade in old age make dealing with rapidly changing traffic situations much more difficult.

The report had someone on who quoted some stats like that mentioned above and then claimed that since older drivers drive slower and are more careful they are actually safer drivers.  It ended with some feel good impressions that the elderly drivers are not unsafe after all.

Part of the problem is the way terms like “elderly” were used.  When most people think about old or elderly drivers they are not thinking about the 65 year-old who just retired.  Instead when people imagine elderly drivers they probably have in mind 80 or 90 year-olds.

A big problem with this story is the misleading way “driver” was used.  An unsafe driver implies the act of driving.  I really don’t care about how safe a driver is when he isn’t driving.  What I do care about is their actions when they are behind a wheel.  So if you claim that older drivers cause fewer accidents that other age groups you would be claiming something that is technically true  but highly misleading. This is due simply to the fact that they driver far few miles.  You can’t cause an accident sitting on your sofa. However, per mile driven the story is something else entirely.

If you look at the actual detailed numbers collected by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration you can come to some of the following conclusions.

Per person the number of accidents decreases as age increases.  This is simply due to less miles driven.  It says absolutely nothing about how safe someone is when they are when actually behind the wheel.

Looking at crashes per mile we see the following.  Drivers between 35 and 65 are the safest and the rate is pretty flat between them.  Between 25 and 35 and  between 65 and 80 the rates are noticeably worse but nothing to get too worried about.  Between 20 and 25 and between 80 and 85 the rates are significantly worse than the safest ages.  Drivers under 20 and 85 or older are magnitudes worse in the number of crashes.  The elderly are 3 times more likely to be involved in a crash and the teenagers are 5 times more likely.  There isn’t a 90+ or a 95+ category but looking at the numbers that are available you can imagine the accident waiting to happen that exists in those age categories.

The other thing that is significant is fatality rate for drivers by age.  Young drivers are much much more likely to survive a crash simply because of their more resilient physiology.  An 85 year-old who is involved in a wreck is more like to be killed than a 25 year-old.  The numbers here show a dramatic effect with older drivers killed at many times the rate of younger drivers.  Apparently they are killing themselves.  So aside from the fact they are likely to harm others, perhaps the elderly drivers need to get off the road for their own sake.

The conclusions here are all about AVERAGES.  I’m certain despite the group averages that there are some incredibly safe teenage drivers.  The same thing may be true about some elderly drivers, but a careful teenager is simply a safer driver than a careful 80 year-old for the physiological reasons mentioned above.  People my age are supposed to be safe drivers but my wife probably has a different opinion.

I’m not all that worried about drivers of any age (except people like the 97 year-old dare devil).  I am pretty worried about the misleading stories that are foisted upon us by daily by media organizations that have seemingly have lost all ability to explain anything even slightly nuanced.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Black December 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm

As a Doctoral student I’ve had it pounded into my head that “correlation does not imply causation”, however the general public doesn’t really get this concept.

It’s like saying shoe size determines IQ score. The lurking variable is age. It’s not the shoe size!
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Carl January 31, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Totally agree. I see this all the time. Basically, “news” outlets just report what they want you to believe, who cares if it’s right or wrong. They find the data that they need to support their opinion, without regard to the integrity of the data. It also seems like the world craves news and information so much that if they don’t have an emergency to talk about, they HAVE TO find something, so they start doing these crazy human interest stories like the one you mention above to just fill up the air time.

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Stephen Grass June 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Well, one is tempted to respond by saying that all “news” is largely crap these days. Its just sugary filler between the revenue generators.

But just as importantly, consider that those who write these stories do not even have a clue about norming data for miles driven, as you have pointed out.

So do we really think that they can analyze the profound complexities of life?

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Lee September 6, 2013 at 9:40 am

I concur with your larger point about the media, but not necessarily with your specific example. That “crashes per person” is more misleading, or less relevant, than “crashes per mile” seems a dubious point. One of the main components of any type of risk is time of exposure; and as you yourself observe, it’s impossible to cause an accident while sitting on a sofa. Obviously someone who doesn’t drive at all poses no risk at all; and the relatively small amount of time that older people spend behind the wheel directly offsets the increased risk factor of age-related physiological issues.

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Jason Fuller September 16, 2013 at 12:16 am

Hey, looks like a ton of these comments are just SEO bumpgs and since you didn’t bother to delete them, I’m guessing you’ll probably not actually reading these comments. Nevertheless, I figure it’s worth pointing out that your conclusion that we shouldn’t trust the media is baised on a premise that all media outlets are equal. Honestly, if you are going to watch Fox news or Good Morning America, what do you expect? Try the PBS world report, or Frontline, or some other news outlet thats classified as news instead of “entertainment” and you won’t have to write articles like this.
Lee, from the DMV’s prespective (and their “point’s” based system), you have a point. However, part of this article was about how the author disagrees with that philosiphy, as accidents per mile is a much better metric to use to judge whome we should be issuing licenses to. For example, say your uncle has a disorder that makes him act markably older to the point where you are leagally blind, or have a 2 second reaction time (these are exaggerations, but true complications of old age) and stastics tells us you should average 2 accidents for every 5 miles he drives, but since he’s disables he always uses the public pickup service instead. Do you really think that he ought to be allowed to hold a icense just because he doesn’t use it and therefore won’t get into an accident vs a travling sales person who has an acident every 200,000 miles and will drive 400,000 over the next copple years? You see, holding a license shouldn’t just a declaration of how responsible of a driver you are, it should also reflect your ablility to drive safely and by the rules.

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Lee September 16, 2013 at 7:28 am

Jason, I do see your point, albeit the example of the blind uncle is a “reductio ad absurdim” , is it not?

Regards, Lee

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Jason Fuller October 3, 2013 at 5:25 am

Sadly, it’s not. I have a friend who somehow obtained a license in MA, but is considered legally blind where she grew up.

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