The continued intentional misuse of drugged driving data

There was another study done, this time in California, where drivers were asked to voluntarily participate and were tested for alcohol and other drugs (breathalyzer and saliva tests, primarily).

Naturally, this has led to another spate of hysterical reporting about the road filled with stoned drivers. The L.A. Times topped the list with its headline blaring: More Californians driving high than drunk on weekends, study says. Of course, the study says nothing of the kind.

And its not just the headline writer who blows it. Reporter Wesley Lowery writes “14% of drivers surveyed tested positive for driving under the influence of impairing drugs.” “Under the influence”? No, the study didn’t show that at all.

But ignorant reporters who haven’t done their homework can easily be taken by the way this study data is presented to them.

Check out the press release that went out to the media:

The survey results announced today by the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) showed more drivers tested positive for drugs that may impair driving (14 percent) than did for alcohol (7.3 percent). Of the drugs, marijuana was most prevalent, at 7.4 percent, slightly more than alcohol.

“This federally funded survey is the first of its kind ever undertaken by a state,” said Christopher J. Murphy, Director of the Office of Traffic Safety. “These results reinforce our belief that driving after consuming potentially impairing drugs is a serious and growing problem.”

The survey also noted that 7.3 percent of drivers tested positive for alcohol. Of those testing positive for alcohol, 23 percent also tested positive for at least one other drug. This combination can increase the effect of both substances. Illegal drugs were found in the systems of 4.6 percent of drivers, and 4.6 percent also tested positive for prescription or over-the-counter medications that may impair driving. More than one quarter (26.5 percent) of drivers testing positive for marijuana also tested positive for at least one other drug. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that, when looking at drivers who were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2010 in California, 30 percent tested positive for legal and/or illegal drugs, a percentage that has increased since 2006.

“Drugged driving poses a serious threat to public safety,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy. “We commend the California Office of Traffic Safety for shedding light on this growing problem and for educating Californians about the prevalence of this danger. We look forward to working with California and other states to raise awareness about this important issue and continue to take action to make our roadways safer.”

The newspeak is really quite beautiful.

I really love the use of the phrase “drugs that may impair driving.” Wow. See what they’re doing there? They’re being technically accurate and saying that the drivers merely tested positive, not that they were impaired. But by calling the drugs “drugs that may impair driving” they get the word “impair” in there making readers (or ignorant reporters and headline writers) to make the connection for them.

Or check out this gem by Christopher Murphy: “This federally funded survey is the first of its kind ever undertaken by a state, … These results reinforce our belief that driving after consuming potentially impairing drugs is a serious and growing problem.” Again, I am humbled by the sheer audacity of the notion of stating that the first study of its kind could prove that this is a “growing” problem. And yet, he’s not the only one! Kerlikowske does the same thing later in the piece.

Someday I want to meet the evil geniuses who write text like this. Do they consider their intentionally deceptive writing some kind of big game? I”d really like to know.

….

Going back to the L.A. Times headline. While it was totally unsupported by the facts of the study, think about it for a moment. “More Californians driving high than drunk on weekends…”

If only.

(An increase in stoned drivers combined with an equal decrease in drunk drivers would likely result in safer roads.)

A note for those who have not followed this issue. Nobody is recommending that people drive impaired or in any way make the roads less safe. The point is that the intentional misuse of data does not ever make roads safer.

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