Department of Awful Statistics

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What to say about a statement by the Governor's Highway Safety Association spokesman which seems to blame--I swear, I am not making this up--Michelle Obama's national fitness campaign for an uptick in pedestrian deaths?


In order to make this sort of statement, I'd want some pretty ironclad evidence that, first of all, Michelle Obama's exhortations were actually causing people to spend more time walking on our nation's roads--a premise that this libertarian, for one, is pretty skeptical of.

I'd also want to see some evidence that they were walking on roads where, y'know, more people were dying.

As James Joyner says:

Well, first off, there are no figures provided. Via Dr. Google, I see "The Governors Highway Safety Association says in the report that 1,891 pedestrians were killed in the first six months of 2010, up from 1,884 in the same period in 2009 -- a 0.4 percent increase. " Now, I don't know the historical variation in these things, but I'd say offhand that this is a statistically insignificant swing. Regardless, a variety of factors -- alcohol, technology, and road design among them - seem to be considered possible explanations for the slight reversal in trend.

Second, while I don't pay much attention to the social campaigns of First Ladies, I don't recall Mrs. Obama telling people that they should get drunk, strap on an iPod, and go wandering around the streets reading their BlackBerries. She's advising people to get some exercise, not to go wander around in traffic. Yes, that's technically a form of exercise. There are others.

Third, anecdotally at least, I have indeed seen an increase in pedestrians distracted by electronic devices, whether it be texting while walking or grooving to whatever's piping through their little white earbuds. Then again, I've seen the same thing among people operating automobiles -- and traffic deaths are down 8 percent during the same period.

I presume that the spokesman had some sort of temporary freakout during the radio interview and blurted something he didn't quite mean.  It happens even to seasoned pros.  But c'mon, guys, where's the mumbling, red-faced, excruciatingly apologetic retraction?

Update:  The spokesman writes

I am the spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. In the interview you reference, I did not blame Mrs. Obama for the small uptick in pedestrian deaths. I noted that in our study we note that programs such as Mrs. Obama's may be increasing the number and frequency of pedestrians and thus exposing them to more risk. We support these programs but want to make sure that pedestrians are behaving safely-not using iphones, texting, crossing in dangerous places, etc. It's ludicrous to suggest that the non-partisan, nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association is blaming Mrs. Obama. We encourage walking/jogging, etc. We just want to make sure that this doesn't lead to more needless deaths.

Fair enough, but it seems like we should get some data on the number and frequency of pedestrians, and their relationship to programs like Mrs. Obama's.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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