The Factoid That Wouldn’t Die

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Conflict of interest — a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest. (Wikipedia quoting Dennis Thompson)

You’ve seen the standard figures on pedestrian safety in the news or on a blog. This many pedestrians die when hit by traffic going that speed. Everybody quotes the same figures.

Anybody who quotes them doesn’t understand traffic safety. They were discredited decades ago.

One editorial was bold enough to add “the science is clear.” It isn’t clear. It isn’t real science either. It is government science. Real science has peer review. Government science has PR review.

Dangerous fools

The bloggers remind me of Jenny McCarthy. Have you thought about why the leader of the anti-vaccination movement is an actress rather than a scientist? When the vaccine-autism link was disproved, scientists stopped believing it.

We wouldn’t have heard about the link in the first place if not for a conflict of interest. Andrew Wakefield could have become rich if people had believed him.

He didn’t get rich, but he got a convert. Jenny McCarthy keeps on spreading misinformation about vaccines, leaving a trail of dead bodies in her wake, because she wants to believe.

25 years of research in three paragraphs

In 1992 a Finnish researcher presented a mathematical model of fatality rates of pedestrians hit by vehicles at various speeds. According to his model, at typical urban arterial traffic speeds most of them died.

An American group checked this result. The paper was wrong. At typical urban arterial traffic speeds most of them lived.

A third study said they were both wrong. A fourth explained the statistical bias that made early studies overestimate danger.

Science moves on. Nobody has the last word.

Catapulting the propaganda

We might not have heard about the original paper in the first place if not for a conflict of interest.

Enter the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA funds your summer holiday speed traps. Pharmaceutical companies sell drugs, tobacco companies sell cigarettes, and NHTSA sells regulation. It relies on a perceived need for more laws and more tickets.

NHTSA paid for a report on pedestrian safety. It had to pass PR review. The authors called attention to the Finnish researcher’s model even though they knew it was wrong. It may be wrong, but it is also government policy.

Letting NHTSA fund research to justify its existence is like letting Big Tobacco control lung cancer research. A paper on rumble strips may get through uncensored. When an engineer found that speed limits didn’t matter, NHTSA tried to suppress his report. The administration’s policy called for low speed limits.

The propaganda got out and thousands of people took the bait. They wanted to believe, no matter what the facts.

People who say “80 percent of pedestrians die when struck by a vehicle traveling 40 mph” don’t know what they are talking about.

They may be ignorantly parroting talking points. They are still spreading lies about public safety. They’re little Jenny McCarthys. Maybe with less plastic.

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