Accuracy in Media

Vice tells us that there’s something hinky about car travel deaths in the U.S. The number just keeps rising, and no one knows why.

The correct answer is that it’s Vice that if failing to grasp the why. There are more people traveling more miles and so there are more suffering the effects of traveling more miles. No one’s happy with that answer in the sense that we don’t want the deaths to be piling up, of course not, but we ought to be happy with the answer in the sense that it explains what is happening.

Vice:

 “While virtually every other OECD country—mostly higher-income, “developed” countries in economic parlance—was able to sustain or even accelerate decades-long trends in making roads safer during the pandemic, the U.S. continued its multi-year backpedaling in making its roads more dangerous for everyone. People in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Australia are roughly four times less likely to die in a road crash than U.S. Residents, according to OECD estimates. People in the UK and Japan are five times less likely to die on their roads. Canadians are about 2.5 times less likely to die on their roads. These trends predate COVID.”

There are two separate issues here. The first is about absolute numbers. The U.S. still has – unlike most other rich countries – a strongly and significantly rising population. This is both because of immigration (and also, immigrants tend to bring with them the higher birthrates of their source countries) and also that the American birth rate among those residents for generations is higher than in most other rich countries.

So, there’s something that happens to people, if there are more people, it’s going to happen to more folks, right?

But there is also the rate thing. The number of deaths per million Americans is also higher than it is among a million Brits – just to use one example. Well, yes. Brits (per capita, so not the amount anyone drives, but all driving averaged out across the entire population) are in a car for perhaps some 6,250 kilometers in any one year (darn these non-miles they use for these international comparisons) and Americans 14,000.

It’s not difficult to think that if something has a certain – even if small – danger to it then if people do more of it then their total level of danger goes up. If Americans drive more than people in other countries ,then even if the risk per mile was the same then the risk per American would be higher, right? This, for example, near entirely explains the difference with Japan. They are in a car for 4,000 km a year, Americans 14,000, the risk is 5 times, we’ve just explained a lot of the difference just in mileage (we refuse to use “kilometrage” as a real word) traveled. Same with Canadians, that 2.5 times less, they travel (8,500) just over half what Americans do.

America has a rising population so the number of people doing anything grows. Americans travel more by car than near anyone else, the death and injury rate – not just the total number – is higher, therefore. There’s really not much more that needs explaining. We can even add that total mileage is increasing.

Vice is a significant part of the modern media landscape. The cable TV channel reaches 60 million American homes. The magazine has a 900,000 distribution. The site itself gains some 25 million visits a month. We do think it would help if the basics of population numbers and travel distances were included in a story about the number of deaths from travel but perhaps that’s just us.

We did think this was fun though: “The proven ways to reduce road deaths—building and maintaining robust public transit systems that work well” which we think means we should all be forced on the bus instead. Except that doesn’t work either. The transport method that has the lowest death rate per mile traveled is in fact flying on a scheduled airline. What amuses is that if Vice actually knew all these numbers then they would indeed be telling us to take the ‘plane. Which isn’t, of course, the thing they’re going to say at all.




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