These Cherries Are Delicious, But Deadly

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

You’ve probably heard the factoid: so many percent of pedestrians die when hit by cars going at such and such a speed. At best, these figures were cherry picked from several studies of pedestrian safety coming to different conclusions.

At worst, these figures are fabrications. The most common false version substitutes “children” for “pedestrians” as the victims. Safety figures for children differ in important ways from safety figures for older people.

A 1998 NHTSA report is the foundation for that agency’s advocacy. Consultants reviewed literature on car-pedestrian collisions. The abstract repeats the oft-quoted figures from a 1992 Finnish study, by Eero Pasanen. 80% of pedestrians die when struck by a vehicle traveling 40 mph. Most people read the abstract and stop.

If you read past the introduction you will find results of a Florida study. 80% of pedestrians survive when struck by a vehicle traveling 40 mph.

If the Florida study is right, the Finnish study greatly overestimated danger. Why did only one study make the headlines?

The report was bought by the government.

The government wants a crisis to save us from. A study that doesn’t describe a crisis for Washington to solve may be sent back to the contractor for rewriting.

According to the Florida study the death rate for children struck by cars is about half the death rate for 40 year olds. Their bones are less brittle than adults’.

I can pick cherries too. Here’s a headline for you: 90% of children survive when struck by a vehicle traveling 40 mph.

I don’t know which figure is closer to the truth. Maybe we don’t have to find out. The statistic is only indirectly applicable to transport policy, much like “crashes caused by red light running” are less relevant than total crashes.

Should we shut down the Interstate system because a crash is about five times as deadly as a crash on another kind of road? Or should we encourage drivers to use Interstates because you are only half as likely to die when driving on one?

Should we ask “does getting hit by a car hurt?” or “how often are people hurt by cars?”

Another study looked at how often children are hurt by cars. The NHTSA report cited it but misrepresented its conclusion. I’ll write about it next time.

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