Let’s Talk About Experts

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“I’d love to be a Civil War buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?”George Costanza, Seinfeld

An excess of experts

Reporters love to attribute statements to road safety experts. I read a lot of driving-related articles. I see a lot of talk of ” safety experts” and “safety groups.” There is a conspicuous lack of actual experts in these articles.

Most of the expert-backed news stories aren’t really news at all. I’m not the first to notice this. After reviewing millions of stories for his news aggregator site Drew Curtis devised a taxonomy of media filler. I reviewed recent news stories to make sure I wasn’t suffering selective memory. As I write this in November recent news includes Halloween-related articles. The deluge of Halloween advice nobody will follow is what Curtis calls “seasonal articles.” Most of them can be recycled every year. When gas prices go up watch for gas saving advice from the 1970s telling you how to get the best mileage from your carbureted engine.

An expert what?

What are the qualifications for being a road safety expert?

The easiest way to be a safety expert is not to exist at all. If a group puts out a press release claiming “road safety experts say …” some editor with a deadline may run it as a story. Curtis calls this “unpaid placement masquerading as actual article.”

You can play this game too. Write “statistics show” in your letter to the editor. You sound authoritative even if you’re making it up.

Sometimes the article gives you enough information to conclude that the alleged expert is not an expert.

A hospital worker advised not talking on your cell phone when driving on Halloween. Nothing in her title suggested any specialized knowledge of traffic. Why would I let her tell me how to drive? She might not be wrong, but she isn’t any more qualified than me or a random person on the street.

I give advice from emergency responders less weight, not more. Blood and guts are memorable and interfere with objectivity. Safety policy depends on sound statistical analysis. TV airs the story of a driver’s severed hand found still clutching her cell phone. (That really happened.) Real experts look at millions of accidents to find out whether drivers who crash while on the phone are equally likely to crash when not on the phone. Publishing gory predictions instead of real odds is “media fearmongering” in Curtis’ taxonomy.

Traffic safety experts in a local police department advised on placement of a bus stop. Police may have useful advice, but they are not traffic safety experts. Only a few, large police forces have experts. Michigan State Police are actively involved in speed zoning policy, for example. Writing tickets, directing traffic, and filing accident reports does not make you a road safety expert.

A local news site warned of holiday traffic enforcement, passing on advice from safety experts in the California Office of Traffic Safety. OTS staff are not safety experts. They are grant disbursement experts. State highway safety agencies exist to distribute federal grant money. That’s in the mission statement for California OTS. Speed traps, roadblocks, and zero tolerance seat belt enforcement are their life blood. Their road safety advice is whatever NHTSA pays them to give.

Where the experts roam

If you need a traffic safety expert don’t look in police departments, hospitals, or “highway safety” agencies. A few work in departments of transportation, doing research that doesn’t make the news. (I met some of these at the NCUTCD conference last summer.) Others are independent consultants or academics, who also rarely make the news unless they’re being paid to promote somebody’s agenda.

My review of recent news found three articles about speed limit policy with information traceable to an academic who could plausibly be considered an expert. Of these, one was probably quoted accurately (it was a standard explanation for why low speed limits are pointless), one had his statement distorted for effect, and the third makes his living publishing advocacy disguised as bad science.

When an article has a legitimate source watch for what Curtis calls “headline contradicted by actual article.” An Australian expert credited a fatality reduction mainly to safer cars, and secondarily to enforcement. The reporter decided speed cameras should go first, and safer cars second. Only if you read to the end do you find what the expert said, as opposed to what the reporter wanted to say.

Do read to the end if you really care. Some reporters feel an ethical obligation to bury the bodies there. In the old days the editor would have trimmed the incriminating last paragraph during layout. Honor and agenda are both satisfied. Now everything can fit on a web page.

The article built around bad science is trickier to judge. You can start by telling yourself: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

Is a change in the unposted speed limit on city streets (and not in any posted speed limit) likely to cause a huge drop in fatalities? If you know anything about speed limits in America, you know the answer is “no.” This answer has nothing to do with whether speeding causes accidents. Speeds on city streets are not affected by unposted speed limits. There seems to be a combination of excusable ignorance, willful ignorance, and fraud behind the claim. It got press for politicians pushing a speed limit reduction bill, and so served its purpose.

As a media criticism expert, I advise you to stay skeptical out there.

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