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Obfuscation, prevarication and Manitoba Public Insurance

I recently posted a column wherein I pointed to the research behind the oft-cited statistic that texting while driving makes you "23 more times likely to be in a crash."

Manitoba Public Insurance is really fond of that stat. And of course, it's an attention-grabber.

But, for a number of reasons, it's totally wrong.

I pointed the errors out in my column, and pointed to a new — and better — study that shows texting while driving merely doubles your risk of nearly getting into a crash. And 99 per cent of near-crashes are avoided, even by texting drivers.

Of course, MPI didn't want to hear that, so they fired back with a letter to the editor.

Unfortunately, they have retreated behind misleading statistics once again, and they have misrepresented my arguments.

Here's the full text of the letter, in bold, written by MPI's MaryAnn Kempe, with my comments in italics below each paragraph.

Letter to the Editor:

Texting while driving is an extremely dangerous driver behaviour. But I’ll let the facts speak for themselves:

That's opinion. Can't wait to see these facts.

Fact: texting while driving is a form of distracted driving, according to numerous studies.

Sure. Does it really need "numerous studies" to tell you that?

Here are some other things that count as distracted driving: Eating, applying makeup, checking your hair in the mirror, dealing with kids in the back seat, being drowsy, changing the radio station, paying too much attention to a radio show, daydreaming, talking to a passenger, using GPS navigation …

According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "distracted driving" can include merely looking at a passenger or adjusting your windows, seat belts, door locks or air conditioning or heater.

Even smoking a cigarette can count as distracted driving.

In that same report, the NHTSA says that only 5% of distracted-driving-related injuries involve cell phones.

Fact: about 25 road deaths each year in Manitoba are directly related to distracted driving, according to police-reported traffic accident data.

I'm sure that's true. But "related" is not the same as "caused" and as I mentioned above, there are plenty of driver distractions. It's not just texting.

Fact: seven percent of all Manitoba crashes in 2011 involved a distracted driver.

I'm sure that's true as well. What were they distracted by? And was the distraction what caused the crash?

Remember, the NHTSA says that only 5% of distracted-driving-related injuries reportedly involve cell phones.

Fact: 26 percent of all fatal crashes in 2011 and 27 percent of people killed on public roads (2011) involved a distracted driver.

Once again, "distracted" is not exclusively "texting." It's only 5% cell phones, and some of that would to have to be phone calls.

These are extremely misleading statistics when I am arguing specifically about texting while driving.

It’s important to accurately explain to Sun readers the statistics associated with distracted driving which includes texting. Fact is, Grant Hamilton of The Sun would have you believe that texting while driving is no big deal. In fact, he admits to having done so.

I am trying to have an accurate discussion of statistics about texting and driving. But you keep bringing other distractions into it.

What I admit to is "occasionally taking a peek while stopped at a red light". It's more than a little disingenuous to equate "looking while stopped" to "texting while driving" .

Fact is, Manitoba Public Insurance does state that a driver who texts while driving is 23 times more likely to become involved in a collision than a non-texting driver.  As Mr. Hamilton stated in his opinion piece, the 23 times factor did come from a simulation study.  The fact this proxy is from a simulation study among a specific segment of drivers does not make the statistic "flat out wrong".  Nor is it a lie as suggested by Mr. Hamilton.

Yes, that IS the wrong statistic!

The simulation study clearly says that a texting driver is 23 times more likely to be in a "crash OR NEAR-CRASH EVENT" (emphasis mine) — and a followup study showed that 99% of "near-crash events" are successfully avoided by texting drivers.

Also, I took no issue with it being a simulation study. What I pointed out was that it was a simulation of semis and other heavy trucks — not of light vehicles like cars and pickups.

That same simulation study showed that, for light vehicles, dialling a cell phone increased the risk of a crash — or a successfully avoided near-crash — by less than three times. They didn't look at texting.

I'm not sure what definition of "lie" they use at MPI, but my dictionary says that it means "to deliberately deceive." This continuing misuse of the "23 times more likely" statistic clearly counts.

Truth is, the simulation study is a reliable methodology accepted worldwide by road safety organizations including governments and public and private organizations.  This statistic is cited by federal and provincial governments in Canada, the USA, Australia, Europe and South America.  It is used by both public and private organizations, such as police forces, insurance companies, and automobile owner groups.

Yes, I have no issue with the simulation study. I have an issue with how it is being represented.

Loads of people cite the statistic. But if they say "23 times more likely to get into a crash" then they are wrong. It's "crash OR NEAR CRASH".

And, again, the study was done on heavy truck drivers like semis. It's stretching credulity to suggest that drivers of hatchbacks face precisely the same crash risks.

Appealing to authority is a classic logical fallacy.

Mr. Hamilton went on to tell Sun readers he read the Virginia Tech cell phone 2013 study. What he failed to tell Sun readers was that participating drivers took their eyes off the road for an average of 23 seconds. (At 90 km/hr, a driver covers more than half a kilometer, 575 metres, or six football fields, in 23 seconds.)

Yes, it's a very long report (273 pages) and I left a lot of it out. I did include a link to the study so that everyone could read it, however. Here's another link.

Six football fields sounds like an awful long way. I wouldn't want to run it. But to a highway driver in Manitoba, it's somwehere around just 10% of the distance they can see ahead of them.

And the study doesn't say that texters who take their eyes of the road are going anywhere near 90 km/h. In fact, the study clearly showed that texting drivers slow their speeds and give themselves more time to react. It even appeared that drivers were choosing to do the most distracting tasks while they were approaching a natural stop, like a red light — precisely the behaviour I report in myself.

And MPI fails to also report that merely reading a text takes an average of 9.4 seconds — and that might include looking up and down as drivers continue to check the road throughout.

This is a disturbing statistic. Sun readers need to know that innocent people die on Manitoba roads due to texting drivers. Manitoba Public Insurance is committed to making our roads safer, in partnership with like-minded agencies. And those are the true facts.

Even in the summary press release of the study, they clearly state "Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by TWO TIMES" — not 23.

It's in the SAME SENTENCE as the "eyes off the road" statistic, and I can't believe MPI would miss it.

So they've obviously left it out deliberately.


MaryAnn Kempe
Manitoba Public Insurance

Look, normally, I like MPI. I find it easier to have a government-run insurer that automatically covers all drivers, rather than trying to negotiate a weird weave of private insurers like I had to when I lived in Ontario.

But Manitobans deserve to be presented with "true facts" that are acutally true.

I happen to have discovered that one of their favoured statistics is wrong. Flat out wrong.

They refuse to admit it, and their letter veers dangerously close to smearing me.

Go back and read my original column. While they make me out as a wanton texter who flouts the law, you'll see in the top paragraphs that I've stopped texting while driving and that I support the anti-texting law.

I just want MPI to support the law by saying that texting while driving doubles the risk of a crash or a near crash. Not to twist the stats to suggest that it's 23 times.

Again, it's fear-mongering for them to suggest otherwise. And to continue to do so even after being presented with the facts means that they're not innocently mistaken, they are being deliberately deceptive.

What else can't I believe?


Updated on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 4:15 PM CST:
Corrected a typo to properly spell the name of MPI's MaryAnn Kempe.

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I'm not sure you know what "ignorant" means. But I'm pretty sure you know what "bastard" means. Please avoid personal attacks in the future.

23 times or 3 times - You are an ignorant bastard if use your phone while driving - stopped or moving.

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