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Media Botch

May 6, 2013

Is 'device distraction' a major cause of serious road casualties?

Smartphones and electronic devices are often cited as a major cause of car crashes. But is that a media invention? Does it distract attention from more important causes of road casualties?

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"The lastest mod-cons are distracting to drivers" says The Age in this front-page story. Source: The Age

Like everything else, technology is a mixed blessing. All that wonderful connectedness and access to information provided by smartphones and screens appears to have its dark sides.

According to a report on the weekend in the Fairfax press, new research shows in-vehicle technology can be very, very bad for your health.

The Sydney Morning Herald headed the story, Driver distraction responsible for more car crashes than alcohol. The Age splashed the story over five columns on the front page under the heading, Motorists driven to distraction by their own devices, and accompanied it with the picture above.

Here’s the headline and the opening paras from Saturday’s The Age:

Motorists driven to distraction by their own devices

More than 1000 people are predicted to die or be seriously injured on Victorian roads in the next five years due to driver distraction from in-vehicle technology such as car stereos, GPS devices or gadgets such as mobile phones.

The economic cost of these predicted collisions has been calculated at $1.285 billion, in a major study of driver distraction by the Monash University Accident Research Centre and Monash Injury Research Institute.

So it looks like using smartphones and electronic devices is a serious problem for safe driving. But hang on a bit, there’s more to the story.

 

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If you read further into the article you find out mobile phones are the cause of just 1% of serious casualty crashes (see second exhibit).

Source: The Age

In fact device-related causes (the last four categories) collectively only account for 3.6% of these crashes. In contrast, intoxication and tiredness collectively account for 36.2% of them!

It’s true The Age provides enough information to get a handle on what’s really going on here if the reader continues with the rest of the article.

Nevertheless I’m disappointed the paper would run with that headline and those opening paras given that “device-related” crashes appear to be a relatively small cause of serious casualties.

There seems to be a disconnect between the “angle” and the facts being reported. The front-page splash focussed on devices appears to be at odds with what’s really at issue here.

I wonder how many readers skim the headline, the image and the opening para and go away thinking devices are the main or at least a very important cause of serious crashes? I wonder if the way the story is presented “primes” how those who read further into the story will interpret it?

It’s not that The Age is wrong. It’s just that it’s emphasised the smaller of the causes (its readers would of course be a ‘device-intensive’ demographic) rather than what are apparently far more important causes.

I must acknowledge though that I haven’t seen the source document on which The Age based its story. I can’t therefore comment on the accuracy of The Age’s report or discount the possibility the reporter’s seen something I haven’t. Nor can I comment on the methodology used by the researchers.

I haven’t seen the source because it’s gated. The Age says it’s a paper published in the May 2013 issue of the Elsevier journal, Accident analysis & prevention. It appears under the names of the researchers who presumably did the work.

I think it’s regrettable that publicly-funded institutions eagerly put out press releases about research of public interest but can’t be bothered making it easily available to the public, as I’ve discussed before.

In this case, neither the Monash Accident Research Centre nor the Monash Injury Research Institute provide access to the journal paper via their web sites or, more importantly, the in-depth report on which it’s presumably based.

The Age says VicRoads was the client for the study, but the latter doesn’t list the report either.  Indeed, I couldn’t find any mention of the report/paper on any of the sites, notwithstanding it was reported in Saturday’s papers.

Judging by how out-of-date these sites are in terms of their publishing histories, reporting to the public doesn’t seem to be a high priority.

At least Elsevier provides access to the abstract of the article. We can tell from it that the study started with a sample of 856 crashes over the period 2000-2011 taken from the Australian National Crash In-depth Study.

Most of these couldn’t be coded for one reason or another, so the study was left with 340 crashes. Of these crashes, 57.6% showed evidence of “driver inattention”. (fn 1)

The abstract doesn’t make a big thing of device-related inattention. The only specific causes it mentions are intoxication and fatigue:

The most common subtypes of inattention were restricted attention, primarily due to intoxication and/or fatigue, and diverted attention or distraction. The most common types of distraction involved voluntary, non-driving related distractions originating within the vehicle, such as passenger interactions. The current study indicates that a majority of serious injury crashes involve driver inattention.

The abstract concludes by saying that “most forms of inattention and distraction observed are preventable.” That’s an important message as it suggests there’s scope to reduce the level of fatalities and serious injuries.

If the 3.6% of serious crashes caused by ‘device distraction’ translate to more than 1,000 serious casualties over the next five years as The Age implies, then it’s important to address that cause.

However the 36.2% caused by intoxication and tiredness – which presumably translate to many more serious casualties – should surely be given more attention by the media and policy-makers.

__________________________________________________

(fn 1) Hence the figures shown above in the second exhibit appear to be a percentages of all crashes, not just those that involve inattention. They don’t add to 100%, which I take to mean that the other 44% are attributable to non-distracting causes, like speed.

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