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Sunday, May 13, 2012
Road-death stats hide the truth
The media likes to report on victims of accidents, disasters and crimes, and while it's natural to feel sympathy for unfortunate individuals, the only imaginable benefit this sort of coverage provides to viewers and readers is catharsis, which is better served by the popular arts.
News should inform and enlighten. Due to a series of recent traffic accidents resulting in death, victim coverage has been intense lately. There were two cases in Kyoto Prefecture of motorists losing control and plowing into pedestrians, a similar tragedy in Chiba Prefecture, and then that charter bus crash on the Kanetsu Expressway at the start of the Golden Week holiday. Reporters profiled selected victims, explicating their now unfulfillable dreams as friends and family wept on camera.
It was all very affecting — and beside the point. The press is supposed to find out why these accidents happened, and like victim coverage, explanations of cause centered on individuals. In the first Kyoto accident, the driver was reported to have been suffering from epilepsy, which his employer didn't know about. The second Kyoto crash was caused by a young unlicensed driver. The Kanetsu incident is still being investigated, but we know the driver was hired illegally as a part-timer and fell asleep at the wheel.
All these accidents were traced to human fallibility; the agent of death was the person at the wheel. However, the initial reaction to the news of the Kanetsu crash for most people was shock at the implied violence. The bus was literally split in half lengthwise because of the nature of the impact. It had traveled headlong into the edge of a soundproofing barrier installed on the side of an overpass. Had there been no barrier, or if the barrier had been positioned closer to the edge of the road, the damage and loss of life would have been less.
As University of Tokyo professor Taku Sugawara commented in Tokyo Shimbun, while the driver of the bus may have caused the accident, the reason for the high casualty count was the barrier. Sugawara says traffic experts discussed this aspect of the tragedy on the Internet, but the mass media ignored it. One could make a similar charge with regard to the other accidents. The youth who ran into a group of children on their way to school was driving on a narrow but busy back street without sidewalks or guardrails. The accident in Chiba also took place on a narrow street where children were waiting in line for a bus. In an editorial published April 30, Asahi Shimbun called for "immediate countermeasures," but none of the ideas put forth — reducing speed limits, erecting barriers — would be a burden on the automobile industry or other commercial interests. The burden is placed on communities, and while widening roads and installing speed bumps sound like necessary steps, considering the fact that these types of accidents are common it makes more sense to rethink the entire transportation infrastructure. In any event, no one has suggested banning or even reducing traffic on certain types of roads.
The media gives the impression that nothing is really wrong with the system because it always concentrates on one statistic: traffic deaths, which have continued to drop since 1989 when there were more than 11,000. In 2011, the number of traffic-related deaths was 4,611, a 5.2 percent drop from the previous year's total. The Jiji Press article of Jan. 4 that reported this news was typical of the tone of the coverage. The police agency released the traffic death number and congratulated itself on its "public relations and education" efforts.
A closer look at other statistics reveals something else. Though traffic deaths have declined, traffic accidents haven't: from 661,000 in 1989 to 691,000 in 2011. More significantly, the number of traffic-related injuries has gone up, too: 815,000 in 1989 to 854,000 in 2011. As the financial analyst who calls himself Zam writes on the blog "Damasareruna" ("Don't Be Fooled"), the decline in traffic deaths is easy to explain. Emergency medical services have improved greatly in the last 13 years, and most people don't realize that the police define a "traffic death" as an individual who has died within 24 hours of being in an accident. If the person dies after that period, he is not a traffic death statistic, and new medical techniques have not only boosted survival rates of trauma patients, but prolonged the lives of those who eventually die of their injuries.
Also, car safety has improved, and thanks to pressure from U.S. automakers Japanese regulations with regard to vehicle size were relaxed some years ago, allowing for larger cars such as SUVs even if the road infrastructure hasn't kept up. As a result, fewer drivers and passengers die in traffic accidents. If we read the traffic death statistic with these other statistics in mind, there's only one conclusion: Accidents continue at the same pace they always have, but now fewer people inside cars are being killed or injured. So you have to think: What about the people outside the car?
It's a question the media should answer, but all it does is report accidents when they happen, especially if people have died because of a negligent driver, since such coverage makes for all sorts of human interest. Zam and Sugawara advance the common gripe of many media critics, that TV stations and publications rely heavily on the automotive industry for ad revenue and thus cannot be seen to criticize car culture, even indirectly. If they criticize anything, it's usually how careless pedestrians and bicyclists are. Last week, all the newspapers covered, without comment, a Tokyo Metropolitan government survey showing how cyclists don't properly understand rules. Meanwhile, the National Police Agency announces that it will step up efforts to facilitate "smooth traffic flow and safety" on public roads. Notice which issue comes first.