Monday, September 20

Surveying The Public: When People Don't Know

If reality was the same as public perception, we would live in a much scarier world. I might even give up driving all together.

Traffic Perception.

• According to AAA, 52 percent of all surveyed drivers said they feel less safe on the roads now than they did five years ago. The leading reason cited by American drivers was distracted driving, with 88 percent of motorists rating drivers who text and email as a very serious threat to their safety.

• According to State Farm, teens ages 14 to 17 think the chances of getting into an accident are higher when you drink and drive as opposed to text and drive. Sixty- three percent strongly agree they could get into an accident if they text and drive.

• According another AAA announcement, texting by Golden State drivers has nearly doubled since the introduction of a state law 19 months ago. It was designed to prevent distracted driving, but the study said it doubled. It was based on combining three studies.

Traffic Reality.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released an updated 2009 fatality and injury data report showing that highway deaths fell to the lowest number since 1950 (a 9 percent decline from the year before). The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even while estimated vehicle miles increased. Fatalities declined in all categories of vehicles including motorcycles.

There was also a 5 percent decline among people injured. There was a 5.3 percent decline among all accidents, including those with property damage but no injuries.

More recently, the adminstration also released data that suggested distraction-related fatalities represented 16 percent of overall traffic fatalities (the same as 2008). However, there is a bit of a numbers game in play-- 16 percent of less is still less.

The Perceptional Gap.

Traffic safety is important and no one can dispute that distracted driving (especially texting, but also eating or putting on makeup) is stupid and nothing about this post is meant to distract from striving to reduce accidents, and fatalities, even more. To anyone who loses a loved one, numbers don't matter even if the reality is we will never achieve a zero year.

However, the takeaway is that sometimes our perception and reality are different. Specifically, traffic safety is getting better even while the public believes it is getting worse. (While writing this, I recall Ike Pigott made this observation in July.)

There are a number of factors contributing to the perceptional gap. Traffic safety concerns receive two to three times as much coverage as improvements. Local news stations frequently lead with accident recaps. Millions of dollars are spent on fear campaigns every year. And even the administration that announced the "good news" had announced a $13 million ad campaign to target 20 percent of drivers who they say admit to having driven after drinking (just days before).

For communicators, it's always something to keep in mind. Crowd sourcing and surveys are great, but it's the work done after the data has been compiled that makes a real difference. Sometimes statistics lie, but sometimes people who contribute to those statistics lie too. Even if they don't know it.
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