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
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
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.