Misleading with road statistics

Changing driving behaviors with campaigning alone is a tall order, but is literally a life-or-death matter. Road fatalities range from about 40/million  in Japan, to about 6 times as much in Russia. Fortunately, the numbers tend to decrease in most places, due to better equipment, better roads, harsher punishment and safer behaviors.

Of all of these factors, drivers behavior is the only thing which isn’t directly controlled by governments, so it’s no surprise that it’s what the agencies try to target. Almost every angle has been tried: blaming alcohol, speed, showing the consequences of seemingly inocuous oversights, and, obviously, gore and shocking images.

This year, in France, they’ve tried a different approach with a campaign called the 12000: thanking the drivers for their better behavior, which has saved, well, 12000 lives since 2003.

I really appreciate the upbeat tone of campaign and its much welcome positive spin. Unfortunately, it’s based on such fallacy that it’s difficult to accept as such.


Here’s one view of what has happened. The number of fatalities has dropped since 2003. (By the way, the unit for this and the following chart are fatalities per million population, indexed so that the value for France in 2003 is 100). It can be argued that lives have been saved, because if the number of fatalities had remained constant since 2003, the area in green would represent extra fatalities (around 6,000).

But that’s what the agency wants us to believe.


Says the website,

12000 lives have been saved between 2003 and 2008. Fatalities have dropped from 6126 in 2003 to 4275 in 2008.

To actually come up with that number of 12000 person saved, they’ve simply multiplied the difference between the 2008 and 2003 figures by 6. As if there had been a sudden and drastic drop in 2003.

I wonder why they do that. Behaviors have changed on the road. 75% of French drivers have a perfect driving record, another 15% have only committed minor offences. Those are facts. So why inflate the numbers? and why, for instance, start at 2003 and not 2002, where mortality dropped by over 20% ? 12000, as an absolute figure, is not more striking than 1000 or 100000.

The visuals all repeat this figure. On all the posters of the campaign, we find the following footnote: “* If behaviors had not changed since 2002 in France, 12000 more people would have died on the road between 2003 and 2008. Source: ONISR. “. The ONISR says no such things in their report, so that number must have been invented for the campaign.

Speaking of the ONISR reports, they estimate that if people observed speed, alcohol and seat belt legislations, the numbers would drop by over 2000. So are we doing that well?


That’s a comparison with the UK. Again, the units are ratio per population, not absolute figures. If France had the same road fatalities that the UK, over 10,000 persons would not have been killed over the 2003-2008 period…

Anyway. There’s no good reason why all western countries couldn’t go under 50 killed / million population within a reasonably short time frame.

Using data visualization to disinform

Two weeks ago I have been at DD4D conference, conveniently located at my workplace. I will write some more on DD4D, meanwhile you can see this post on infosthetics by Petra and Marian. One of the things that struck me at DD4D was that several talks were about either data visualization for advocacy, or for education purposes. One speaker said that data visualization could be used to protect people against those who use numbers to mislead and disinform. Yesterday, I saw this typical example of such a manipulation, reminding of the famous Disraeli quote.

This is a poster for restaurants to display. Yesterday, VAT for restaurants in France was cut from 19.6% to 5.5%. This is the result over 10 years of lobbying. Initially, restaurants asked for a VAT drop and committed to cut their listed prices accordingly. That cut in price would have attracted more consumers, eventually generating more profit and possibly more tax money. That would have been a win-win-win situation for the restaurant industry, the consumer and the state.

But eventually, the changes that restaurants have agreed to their price structure are as follow. They would cut the listed price of up to 10 menu items by 11.8% to “reflect the tax drop”. In exchange, they are allowed to display this poster, on which the chart ominously promises a massive price drop.

In reality, 11.8% is not enough to offset the VAT drop.

That should have been approximately 13.4%  or 100*(1.196/1.055 – 1) . Fast-food chains only have to drop some of their prices by 5% to get the poster.

The poster claims: “a cut in VAT is a cut in prices!”. But what happens really? For most items, listed price (incl tax) is unchanged, which means their actual prices raise by 13.4%. And for the discounted items, the sales price excluding tax still raises by 1.4% (or 7.7% for fast-food chains).

Is this what was implied by the chart?

In the past two weeks, I have collected more examples of shameless lies backed by seemingly official numbers and charts, and will continue to collect them.