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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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October 1997


The Calamity That Never Occurred
Guest Editorial, by Stephen Moore

This is the tale of how faulty statistics take on lives of their own in the Washington policy debate — and how the media too often fail to take false prophets of doom to task when their predictions are contradicted by events.

Just over two years ago the new Republican-controlled Congress voted to repeal the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit. This action was greeted by the highway "safety" lobby with universal moral outrage.

"History will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life," Ralph Nader declared. Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook moaned that Republicans "buried moral leadership in the rich opportunities afforded by political power." These statements were dutifully reported by the media across the country.

A few days later, on the Today show, Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway Safety, predicted "6,400 added highway fatalities a year and millions of more injuries." This number became the rallying cry for opponents of higher speed limits.

Well, in August of this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disclosed the traffic fatality data for 1996 — the first year that higher speed limits were in effect. Fatalities rose by a grand total of 109 deaths — or 0.25 percent. But if traffic deaths were measured on the basis of miles traveled — the best standardized measurement from one year to the next — highway fatalities actually fell by more than one percent.

Moreover, the absolute number of speeding-related deaths did not rise by 6,400, but fell by 258. That’s right: higher speed limits corresponded with no greater loss of life. In the 27 states where the higher speed limits had been in effect for at least six months, highway fatalities were virtually unchanged. California raised its speed limit to 70 and fatalities fell to their lowest level since 1961.

Imagine that highway deaths had surged by anywhere near the preposterous 6,400 estimate. This would have made national headlines and GOP leaders would have been blamed for the death and carnage.

Instead, the media have paid almost no attention to the story. ABC, CBS, and NBC ignored the good news entirely. An exception was CNN, which aired a superb story taking "U.S. highway safety experts" to task for false predictions of doom.

Newspaper coverage was also sparse. Only USA Today published a major story. But the headline read: "Seat Belts Counteract Higher Speed Limits." Yet, as a NHTSA official told me, "There’s no real evidence that seat belt usage has gone up much in the last few years."

But what is worse is that some reports on the traffic fatality data have gotten the story all wrong. For example, Dana Milbank’s September 23 Wall Street Journal story entitled "Texas Traffic Toll Suggests Higher Speed Limits Do Kill." The story reported an 18 percent increase in Texas road fatalities after the speed limit was raised to 70 MPH as evidence that "speed does kill."

But wait. In six of the eight states that adopted a 75 MPH speed limit there were fewer, not more, fatal crashes. Why wasn’t this important fact reported?

There is some honest debate among road safety experts as to whether fatalities have risen somewhat since the national speed limit was repealed. Experts may find that when isolating data from specific highways where speed limits were raised and when controlling for other factors, higher speed limits caused more injuries. But we know one thing for certain; the "health and safety" lobby was wrong with its mantra of 6,400 more deaths.

So where did this number come from anyway? When I asked the Nader groups, they said they got the number from NHTSA. But a memo I obtained from NHTSA says that "we never issued a forecast on the impact of the repeal of [the 55 MPH speed limit]...Some groups have been attributing forecasts to the Department. The 6,400 deaths number are not projections. The figure is an example of the magnitude of our highway safety problem — if we saw a 30 percent increase in fatalities."

NHTSA conceded that it could not "prove scientifically" that higher speed limits would cause a 30 percent increase in deaths. Meanwhile, contrary historical evidence and previous NHTSA findings that higher limits do not necessarily cost lives were ignored by the advocates — and too often by the media.

One reason the rate of fatalities and accidents has not risen is that an estimated 70 percent of U.S. highway drivers routinely exceeded the 55 MPH limit. For the twenty years it was in effect, "double-nickel" was America’s most openly disregarded law since the days of Al Capone and Prohibition. Average highway speeds have only risen by an estimated 2 miles per hour on highways with the new limits. Speed doesn’t kill — bad drivers and drunk drivers kill.

Back in 1995, the safety lobby made irresponsible and inflammatory statements that were not credible at the time and that events have disproven. This is the story the media need to report now.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.


Rich Noyes


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