WCSO is the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. They put out this social media poster on Twitter, regarding cell phone usage / distracted driving and fatalities.
They cite ODOT Crash Analysis & Reporting, 2015.
But check the details.
- Per the ODOT report just 1 of the 73 pedestrian fatalities was linked to cell phone usage (see page 18, fatal pedestrian accident data).
- 0.7% of all accidents and 0.5% of accidents having a fatality were linked to cell phone usage.
Most people today presume a very large portion of auto related crashes are due to cellular phone usage even though neither state nor Federal data support that conclusion.
This works as propaganda through the use of:
- Logical Fallacy – linking phone usage (the text in their tweet) to the item in their graphic (“Oregon was home to 73 pedestrian fatalities in 2015”) leads the reader to believe 73 pedestrians were killed due to cell phone usage in 2015.
- Appeal to Authority – They cite an authoritative source for the data (Oregon Department of Transportation) as an Appeal to Authority. Even though the report does not support their claim, they likely know no one will read the report.
- Each of the text points in the propaganda Tweet are factually correct but lead the viewer to a false conclusion (this is how high quality propaganda often works).
- Their web site page, linked in the tweet, says nothing about cell phone usage and driving or pedestrians (it does say to avoid being distracted by a cell phone while your young children are swimming).
Our quick System 1 brain immediately concludes 73 pedestrians were killed due to cellular phone usage. But their cited report says only 1 pedestrian was killed as a consequence of vehicle operation and cell phone usage.
This is a great illustration of the power of official government propaganda messaging. At this point, the public thoroughly believes cell phone usage is a leading cause of all vehicle crashes. Over the years, newspaper reports have made bold claims that one third or more – and sometimes even the majority – of all accidents are caused by cell phone usage, even though this is not supported by actual data.
I have asked the WCSO on their Twitter page if they could help us understand the data they’ve cited.
(When real world data does not support a popular belief or theory, those who believe the theory must be correct invent an ad hoc hypothesis to explain the discrepancy. The ad hoc hypothesis is that police are not accurately reporting cell phone usage and if only they did, then this would prove cell phone usage causes many or even most accidents.While cell phone usage has skyrocketed over time, the number of drivers has increased each year and the average number of miles driven has increased each year, the number of fatalities has been on a long term downwards trend and the number of crashes has been nearly constant. In order of unreported cell phone related crashes to explain 1/3d of all accidents, then other factors would have had to decline by 1/3d. Thus, you then need yet another ad hoc hypothesis to explain how other factors were disappearing.)
Updated June 28th, 2018:
“Statistics show that 9 percent of all crashes are attributed to distracted driving — mainly cellphones,” said Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Todd Royce. “However, we do know that it’s underreported.”
That means less than 1 in 10 crashes are attributed to the category of “distracted driving”; cell phone usage is a subset of that. The claim that it’s “mainly cellphones” is not supported by the data. Note the ad hoc hypothesis “we do know that it’s underreported”.
Second, the reporter does not verify the claim and reports it as if it is true. Readers, having seen these incorrect claims numerous times view these claims as proven facts.
Third, because reporters are not verifying claims made by interview subjects, news is developing a reputation for propaganda messaging and fictional news reporting.