Posts

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.

Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol

Cameron seems to think a minimum unit price for alcohol is a good idea. It isn’t of course, it’s the worst type of New Labour nanny-state idiocy. You know that, I know that. What’s important is who the enemies of liberty are, and how they use their positions in a conspiracy against the public.

The medical political complex has become dominated by a kind of purse-lipped puritan, who sees the maintenance of life as its sole aim. To these people, the poor especially must be bullied, for that is what it amounts to, into “healthy lifestyles”. To this end, government must see to it that the poor especially must be prevented from doing harm to themselves. Especially by smoking, drinking and taking drugs.

The war on smoking is going well. The habit has been de-normalised in much of middle-class society, remaining widespread only in the working class. The ban on smoking in pubs has caused tens of thousands of pubs to shut down. Not, of course the nice gastro-pub in which the members of the medical/political complex might take their 21 units a week (a number for which, of course there is NO evidence), but the kind of local boozer in which a builder might enjoy a pint after work. Builders, who are more likely to smoke than public health professionals, have responded to the incentive provided by the smoking ban by going to the supermarket for lager, and watching the television at home, where they are (still, just) allowed to smoke, instead of socialising with their friends and work colleagues.

The public health professional is not now satisfied with the steady decline in smoking. They are now going after booze, in a big way. And they are fundamentally dishonest. The UK has relatively low consumption of alcohol. Consumption of alcohol is falling. Young people are drinking less than ever. Of course some people go out and get squiffy on a Friday night, but THEY ALWAYS HAVE and much of the vomit and blood on the street is down to insane licencing laws that see local pubs shut (no “entertainment” you see) and vertical drinking barns with bull-necked bouncers who delight in giving random kickings, stay open late. People are herded into noisy “venues” only to have all of them shut simultaneously, leading to fights in kebab queues and taxi ranks. Stressed, drunk people whose jackets are probably still in the cloakroom of the club they’ve been kicked out of, and by whose bouncers they’ve had kickings, are herded around by increasingly officious and aggressive people wearing high-viz, until the police arrive and add one more person to the crime & disorder statistics.

A free market in the night-time economy wouldn’t look like that.

Sheffield university’s Professor Petra Meier’s MODEL-BASED APPRAISAL OF ALCOHOL MINIMUM PRICING is being widely touted as evidence that minimum pricing works. It’s nothing of the sort, of course. It’s a model. If you assume a policy works, and put those numbers into a spreadsheet, you can estimate by how much consumption will fall at different unit prices. All you need is a title – in this case two PhDs and a Professor – to be believed when you say “but the model shows that consumption by problem drinkers falls the most”. But it is by no means evidence that the policy will work. It’s a tarted-up guess. It’s policy-based evidence making, and hoping no-one challenges you on the data.

In a word they’re lying to you. But by repetition the lies become the accepted truth.

But it’s not about whether an intervention into minimum pricing would work. To make the argument about that risks the medical/political complex actually finding it does work, within their parameters, and being encouraged to ban bacon. Is a drop in alcohol consumption a good thing? Why? We probably want to cut the blood and vomit on the street on a Friday night, but that isn’t about booze, it’s culture, law and licensing. Why fight on ground of the puritan’s choosing?

The question should whether it’s the state’s role to intervene in pricing. Because once that rubicon’s been crossed, you can bet we’re back to fighting the cold war again as price-planners flood through the economy, and every decision gets scrutinised by your GP. We will see restrictions on fatty foods. And before long, no-doubt the nation will be forced (for the good of the NHS) to do their press-ups and sit-ups every morning, in the road, where you can be inspected. Minimum pricing therefore is about whether the state has a right to tell you and me what we do with our bodies.

I like a glass of wine now and again. Once in a while, and less often than I used to, I like to get squiffy with my friends. This is absolutely none of the government’s business. And it’s the poor who suffer most. Pubs in poor areas were  already marginal businesses, and they’ve gone. So the low-waged have seen their social forum shut, increasing atomisation and alienation. And all because the temperance lobby don’t like the sight of men with cigarettes and a pint. The poor have been driven to a WORSE health outcome by the smoking ban. And because their lives are a bit less social, the harmful drinkers may well drink more. Of course, if this is the case, there’s no evidence, because there’s no-one looking. The temperance lobby got their policy, and they’ve moved on.

This isn’t about health. It’s about a certain type of curtain-twitching middle-class puritan, drawn to careers in public health who see the poor not as people, but a problem to be tidied up. This is true of slum clearances which destroyed communities in the name of public health, and it’s true of the modern-day temperance crusade.

My prediction: This policy will be declared illegal under European law as the Scottish experiment is shot down. Cameron will use that as a pretext to drop a policy in which he’s invested, but on which the rest of the Cabinet is less less keen. He will use it, like the votes for prisoners, as something on which he will “stand up to Europe”. We will still hear the confident assertions medical/political complex go unchallenged on the Today program.

Further reading on the subject: Heresy Corner’s post is very good and Christopher Snowdon’s blog is excellent on the litany of lies by public health professionals and the temperance industry. You should read it.