Speeding and the Abuse of Statistics

Yesterday, I attended a speed awareness course. I was caught at 35 in a 30 zone (in my defence I was decelerating  and it was a genuine mistake). I was given the option of a £95 course instead of £60 and 3 points.

During the course, the instructor, a knowledgeable but catastrophically monotone former traffic cop asserted that the re offending rate for the speed course is better than that of the points and a fine. My inner stat geek started screaming: SELF-SELECTING SAMPLE. People offered the course have

  1. not offended in the three years previously
  2. been caught a small amount over the speed-limit
  3. be prepared to spend extra to avoid points therefore probably wealthier
  4. be willing to spend half a day taking the course.
All of these things suggest speed awareness courses are being given to people who already respect the rules of the road, and if the conversations with my fellow “delegates” (ffs) was representative, all were first-time offenders who reckoned their speeding was an error of judgement, not habitual. There were no “boy-racers”, and the only person undermining the instructor was me, because I am a contrary bastard and I don’t like the police and he didn’t appear to know the law surrounding cyclists very well.
Above all, I feel genuine stress when I see people abusing statistics. This seems only obvious to me. Is it?
Abuse of stats is a problem: People working in a business where success is measured by stats: speed-camera partnerships and associated road-safety wallahs are a good example, will use statistics to “prove” whatever they do is working. Without the cold, hard measure of cash, the temptation to abuse stats is enormous. People look for information confirming their biases. In this case that the course an instructor delivers, works as intended suits the interests of the people who work for AA Drivetech. The record of speed cameras in saving lives almost dissapears for example when you consider reversion to the mean. Thus we have a deeply unpopular policy sold on the basis of safety, yet with the suspicion that it’s about money.
As it happens, the I found the course is useful, and might even be useful to people who are more habitual speeders. I would not mind the course being COMPULSORY with a fine for more serious examples of speeding and repeat offending. Certainly I took away a few tips for safer driving from a bloke who knows what he’s talking about. Commentary driving as a means to combat boredom and fatigue for example. But I think the focus on speed and speed alone means the dick-head tail-gater who can only be caught by rear-facing cameras in non-police cars, or the dick-head (probably the same) who passes fast and close to cyclists, or the person overtaking round a blind bend, are NOT caught by speed-cameras. The police need to stop thinking speed cameras are all that matters. And they need to accept evidence from people who aren’t warranted officers.
This dick-head wasn’t speeding. But he WAS driving like a cock. And people like that only get caught when they hit someone. Road deaths have fallen over the years. Mainly because children are no longer allowed anywhere near roads until they’re in their mid-teens. Cyclists have all but disappeared and the car has become an armoured box so few die when they crash any more. 
Now cyclists are returning to the roads, we need to realise that driver attitude – the aggression of the white-van tailgater the Audi driver who simply must get in front at all costs, is what needs to be tackled if the long-term decline in fatalities is to continue. We must also build infrastructure which allows people to take a vehicle which isn’t a car in safety. Otherwise we’ve just chased the pedestrian and cyclist off the roads, and congratulated ourselves for increasing safety, and a nation of fat, sedentary, mollycoddled drivers. The driver has assumed he owned the road for too long. The roads must be taken from the driver and given back to people, whatever means of transport – shoe, bike, motorbike, horse or car, they choose for their journey.
My fellow delegates may have lacked the aggression of the true driving twat (those people aren’t given the option of the course), but they did all share the assumption that the car is vital, and there is no other option. That too needs to change. Let’s start building towns and cities around people, not cars. Finally we need to deal with driver behaviour that isn’t simply speed. Unfortunately, both of those seem to require more work and flexibility than the police or local authorities possess.
5 replies
  1. Dick Puddlecote
    Dick Puddlecote says:

    A customarily great article, Jackart.

    Regarding John Adams, I'm another fan of many years and have also read 'Risk'. I was privileged to finally meet him at this event recently where he had come along to a discussion of road reshaping in Poynton. It can be disappointing to meet someone you admired only to find out they're pompous or abrasive, but he is a truly genial guy who seemed genuinely pleased that I knew of his proposed Cream Buns Act.

    He appears to be quite a fan of shared access roads, which I believe would do exactly what you talk about in your article, that is to give roads back to people, however they decide to navigate them.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I took my driving test with an ex-fireman. It was strongly hinted that driving at or below the 30 mph limit might lead to a 'fail'. The police used to call this 'making progress'.

    Roads are for motor vehicles, pavements are for pedestrians.

    The unpredictable cyclist with his, (always his), penchant for riding on either side of the traffic lane, wrong side of the road, wrong direction on the road, pavement and zebra crossing is a threat to himself and pedestrians.

    It is crazy suggesting that other people are 'responsible' for making life safer for these Vain Victorians.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The previous Anonymous contributor mentioned failure due to inadequate progress – yes, me too (1970!). It came on to rain and I just slowed down a bit to show the tester I was aware of the road conditions changing! Otherwise careful drivers will always be caught out by speed limits at variance with the visual clues on what the current limit is, for example rural road without street lighting but with a 30 limit: the repeater signs are always too few, to widely spaced, or not visible. Also, dual carriageway roads with multiple lanes where you don't see the gateway signs due to large vehicles in other lanes and get clocked before you see a repeater or when correcting for it. A human would make a judgement based on more than an instantaneous speed reading.
    The films they show are also full of fake statistics …


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