Two methods of transport-safety myth building

1. Simple assertion.

An example can be found in the current issue of The Economist by the journal’s Science and Technology correspondent writing under the name of Babbage (http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/02/road_safety).  Babbage notes that the US fatality rate has been “inching down over the past half century” and then proceeds to explain why: it is the result of “the wholesale introduction of safety belts and air-bags, as well as tougher drunk-driving laws.”  This provoked me into posting the following comment on Babbage’s article.

“Babbage disappoints. He notes that in the US the fatality rate per 100m vehicle-miles had “been steadily inching down over the past half century.” He goes on “For that, traffic authorities everywhere can thank the wholesale introduction of safety-belts and air-bags, as well as tougher drunk-driving laws.”

The “inching down” has been going on for much longer than the last half century – it began with the Model-T – and long pre-dates seat belts, air bags and drunk-driving laws. In Britain the “inching” rate has been about 5% a year since 1950 and the death rate per 100m vehicle kilometers is now about one twentieth of the 1950 level. The contribution of seat belt and drunk driving laws to this “inching” is statistically undetectable – see “Managing Transport Risks: what works?” (http://john-adams.co.uk/2010/12/02/managing-transport-risks-what-works/).

The inching-down with increasing levels of motorization, noted by Babbage, is a social learning process first described by Reuben Smeed in 1949. It is manifest in countries at all levels of motorization and appears to have little connection with technical or legal safety interventions. Today countries with low levels of car ownership are achieving kill rates per vehicle, with modern imported cars with 100 years of safety technology built into them, as high or higher than were achieved with model-Ts 100 years ago. The inching-own process is now widely labeled, in honour of its discoverer, as the manifestation of Smeed’s Law – try Google.”

2. Suppression of evidence.

Culling files recently in the course of moving house I came across some correspondence with the World Health Organization. In 1986 they had commissioned an article by me on seat belt legislation for The International Digest of Health Legislation. I assumed that the invitation was the result of things that I had already published on the subject:

http://john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/risk%20and%20freedom.pdf, chapter 5.

The article I submitted summarized the evidence and arguments of these earlier essays. I assumed they knew what they were commissioning.

I received a prompt reply from someone with the title “Chief, Health Legislation”:  “I would like to inform you that, for editorial reasons, your review will not appear in the International Digest of Health Legislation. Even though, under the terms of the contractual agreement with you, copyright in the text is vested with the Organization, we have no objection to the review being submitted by you for publication elsewhere, subject to the proviso that no mention is made of the fact that the review was commissioned and an honorarium was paid by WHO.

From that day to this (http://www.who.int/roadsafety/projects/manuals/seatbelt/en/) the WHO has campaigned for seat-belt legislation. No mention should be made of evidence that casts doubt on the efficacy of such legislation – that would undermine the efficacy of its campaign for more legislation.

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  1. Mikael says:

    I am sooo looking forward to you releasing the paper you wrote which ‘wasn’t’ funded or commissioned by the WHO.
    I’ve now put a rough scan of the paper on my website at http://john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/who-1986.pdf .

  2. Dr. Robert Davis says:

    I have referenced this post in my post http://rdrf.org.uk/2011/02/conniving-with-violence-part-two/ on our website. it refers to a BBC programme Horizon on engineering for “raod safety”.


    Dr. R. Davis

  3. Peter Robinson says:

    There is a fascinatingly similar bad attitude at whohelmets.org towards evidence that challenges the perceived efficacy of bicycle helmets also. In their archives of articles they comment negatively on research that does not completely back up their mission.
    Its disappointing that such a respected organisation can be so one-eyed.

    Thanks for the whohelmets.org link. It informs visitors to the website that “Participation in the WHO Helmet Initiative is open to any individual or organization interested in the promotion of bicycle and motorcycle helmets.” In the 1980s I was invited to a couple conferences in the US and Canada on seat belts. Except for my contribution they were devoted to a discussion of how to persuade/compel more people to belt up. Researchers into matters of life and death often become advocates for pro-life anti-death policies – who better qualified to offer advice? But once transformed from researchers into campaigners they lose their scientific objectivity. To concede the possibility that helmet or seat-belt laws might have unintended adverse consequence is to weaken the force of their campaign to get more people to use them. JA

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