Newspaper nonsense on elderly drivers

Last month the Boston Globe published a poorly reasoned article Older drivers bridle at blanket criticism, calling elderly drivers a menace based on flimsy evidence. In How to mislead with statistics I laid out the real story; I also sent a note to the Globe reporter and told him he could do a better job.

Earlier this week the Globe published a better article (Elderly drivers in fewer accidents than others) citing better sources, including the ones I suggested. The key takeaways:

  • Despite all the press attention (hello Globe!) elderly drivers don’t crash a lot compared with other age groups
  • Elderly people in crashes are more likely to die –because they are old and frail, not because their crashes are more severe
  • The percentage of crashes involving elderly drivers is actually decreasing over time

On average only 38 elderly drivers (which the Globe seems to be defining as age 75+) die per year in Massachusetts. That’s out of a total of 451 fatal crashes.

One reason the issue is so big in people’s minds is that the Globe and other media like to get people riled up. Even this article starts off with three gruesome examples of bad-old drivers. Here’s a statistic that would be telling: what percent of fatal crashes does the Globe write about it overall, and what percentage of fatal crashes featuring elderly drivers are covered?

I’d be willing to bet that reports of elderly drivers crashing are far over-weighted compared with the overall number.

July 22, 2009

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