ICBC spins another web of deception
by Greg Felton © The Vancouver Courier, Sunday, January 25, 1998, p. 11
Spin City-fictional TV show starring Michael J. Fox or real-life press conference starring ICBC? Either way it's a carefully scripted affair.
By most accounts, the insurance corporation's latest attempts to manufacture consent for photo radar and its road safety initiatives was fairly successful. It got the message out that accident-related fatalities and injuries are down and, according to a new survey, that the public is solidly behind photo radar.
An approving assemblage of dignitaries at a press conference (Jan. 12)-ICBC officials, the deputy chief of police, a director for the B.C. Automobile Association, and the minister responsible for ICBC-gave the announcement an added cachet of credibility.
Good presentation like this gets the message across, because it makes the audience focus on the message instead of the material on which the message is based. If you have confidence in the material's accuracy, you take it for what it's worth. But if you pay too much attention to the production values, you run the risk of adopting the presenter's frame of reference and reacting to dubious data.
A good rule of thumb is to question everything, but if faulty information is convincingly presented, the spin can be hard to detect. Perhaps this explains why ICBC's claim of a cause-and-effect relation from photo radar, to lower speeds, to improved safety didn't receive the proper scrutiny.
The claim of at least 60 per cent popular support for photo radar since it began in August, 1996 is grossly misleading. The survey question to the public asked: "Do you feel that using radar cameras to catch speeders is a good way or a bad way to prevent speed-related accidents and injuries in B.C.?"
The question is circular because it assumes an absolute relation between speed and speed-related accidents. If you're predisposed to think that a driver who speeds is more likely to cause an accident, you'd likely have answered, "yes." But then, what constitutes speeding?-one km/h over the limit? five? 15? 25? Without a context, the question is meaningless. It is reasonable to assume that some of those who answered "yes" might have answered "no" if speeding were defined below what they thought was a safe speed.
The question also creates a false yes/no dichotomy. The question is not "do you support photo radar,"-which, curiously, is not mentioned by name-but rather "is a radar camera an effective speeder catcher?" One might be opposed to photo radar but nonetheless agree that a radar camera can catch speeders.
As for the general question of speeders causing accidents, people who drive five to 10 km/h over the limit are statistically less likely to cause accidents than people who drive five to 10 km/h under the limit. The survey question only serves to measure respondents' biases toward speeders. It says nothing about support for photo radar.
The claim that photo radar is working because of a 6.6 per cent drop in road fatalities-from August 1996 to the end of 1997-is similarly specious. If anything, the numbers prove the opposite. Statistics from the B.C. Coroner's Office show that fatalities have been following a general downward trend since 1990.
From 1990 to 1991 fatalities fell by 18.2 per cent; from '91 to '92, 11.8 per cent; from '94 to '95, 7.3 per cent; and from '95 to '96, 9.1 per cent. The photo radar-era drop is the smallest since 1990-hardly proof of success.
Once you factor in variables like warm winters, fewer drunk drivers, better road design or economic recession (which tends to reduce the number of cars on the road), it's hard to see what good photo radar does, and this is what sends ICBC spin doctors reeling.
A confidential draft report entitled Policy Options for the Minister Responsible for ICBC outlines this and other problems. It found that much of the public doesn't associate road safety with insurance rates and regards photo radar as a cash-cow for the government. Because ICBC faces a loss of $184 million this year ($873 million by Dec. 31, 2000) because of the continued rate freeze, it desperately needs photo radar and it needs to convince the public that it's a good thing.
In fact, pages 35-37 of the report outline in comprehensive, cynical detail a three-stage campaign to manufacture support. The Jan. 12 press conference followed the Stage One script to the letter, as did the Stage Two rate announcement, Jan. 15.
Stage Three involves co-opting the public and media by chanting the mantra of photo radar "good"/speed "bad," and trying to convince us that photo radar isn't a revenue generator for a govenment drowning in red ink.
The spin doctors will be working overtime. Watch out.