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July, 1997

Doing A Number on Drunk Drivers

by Ron Roizen
    ABC News's TV-newsmagazine program, Turning Point, was devoted entirely to the problem of drunk driving on Thursday, July 3rd (1997); its airing was no doubt timed to precede the long, July-4th, driving weekend.

    The show, titled "Drunk Driving: License to Kill," was narrated by Barbara Walters.

    The show's content, beyond its effort to dramatize drunk driving's worst-case scenarios, emphasized a putative misplaced leniency by the criminal justice system vis-a-vis drunk drivers--stemming largely, the script argued, from a "there but for the grace of God go I!" sensibility that often infects jurors and other parties to the process.

    The show also cast an ambivalent-cum-negative light on the zealousness with which DUI attorneys defend their clients--creating an uncomfortable feeling in my bones about what sort of alternative the show might (tacitly) have in mind.

    I watched the program--as I occasionally do when TV shows focus on alcohol-related problems--with pencil in hand, scribbling notes now and then on a manila envelope that happened to be handy.

    As an alcohol sociologist, I'm always interested in how such problems are defined and packaged to the public.

    I'm also always interested in the ways ostensibly public-service programming nevertheless ends up manipulating public opinion with well meaning but distorted claims or images.

    This show was no exception.

    Ms. Walters took the viewer through an hour of ugly and tragic segments--alternating between images of a seemingly uncaring, self-interested drunk driver, vigorous but misguided defense efforts, and scenes conveying the tragic consequences of deadly traffic crashes for both the innocent victims and the family members who must live on.

    Along the way, the show made use of a number of rhetorical devices for dramatizing its message.

    But I want to focus in this RR on one statistical "fact" Ms. Walters mentioned in particular.

    Toward the program's end, Ms. Walters said that "17,000" people had "died at the hands of drunk drivers" in the U.S. in 1996.

    Every traffic fatality is a tragedy--and the older I get, the more I realize that everyone dies too young.

    Nevertheless, Ms. Walters statistic didn't comport well with the wording she used.

    Like most or all TV-newsmagazine shows these days, Turning Point invites comments via s-mail and an email address (tpoint@abc.com) screened at show's end.

    Next morning, Independence Day, I did just that.

    I began my email by quoting Ms. Walters' statement and her statistic. I said that it constituted an exaggeration that alcohol sociologists call a "problem-inflating" or "problem-amplifying" claim--a fancy way of saying an overselling of facts surrounding a social problem.

    I didn't have access to the 1996 NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) figures yet, but I knew that the 1995 figure for alcohol-related fatalities was put at 17,274--pretty close to Walters' figure.

    But this figure was far too inclusive for the specific "died at the hands of drunk drivers" assertion Ms. Walters made. According to the NHTSA data for 1995:  

    • 3,710 of the 17,274 alcohol-related fatalities involved BACs (blood alcohol concentrations) below the .10% level that the NHTSA defines as "intoxicated"--and therefore don't meet the "drunk" term in Ms. Walters statement.
    • 7,550 of the 17,274 fatalities were drunk drivers themselves--these deaths, obviously, don't satisfy Ms. Walters' implication of an innocent second-party victim (the person killed at the hands of a drunk driver).
    • 1,882 more alcohol-related fatalities were described as "intoxicated nonoccupants" (in other words pedestrians or pedicyclists)--once again, persons who don't quite fitting the letter and spirit of Ms. Walter's innocent victim imagery.

    Subtract the three categories from the total alcohol-related fatality statistic and one is left with 4,132 fatalities--just less than a quarter of the number Ms. Walters had cited. These comprises subgroups NHTSA tables describe as passengers (2,682), nonintoxicated drivers (854), and nonintoxicated nonoccupants (596).

    Put the other way around, Ms. Walters' 17,000-fatalities claim had more than quadrupled the maximum figure to which her actual statement might have referred.

    Why quibble over a well-meaning effort by the show's script to warn the public about drunk driving's dangers--even if the warning fell far from the mark?

    In fact, and as I pointed out in my email to Turning Point, there are reasons for making even seemingly socially beneficial assertions as accurate as possible. Overblown statistics have a way of creating harms of their own--for instance, 

    • by deflecting public attention away from other sources of traffic risk (roads, fatigue, weather, auto design, etc.) that also deserve attention;
    • by distorting and enflaming public opinion to the point that constitutional protections afforded all defendants are "streamlined" or shortcutted in DUI cases; or simply
    • by undermining the credibility of the news media and public service information.

    I closed my email as follows: "Drunk driving is a serious enough problem in the U.S., one that does not need this sort of problem inflation. What a pity that Turning Point didn't repair to a higher standard of accuracy in its reporting."

    But this little tale isn't quite over yet.

    There ensued a series of notices from ABC News.

    The first one came the next day:  

      Sat, 5 Jul 1997 21:26:48

      Thanks for bringing that error to our attention. We copyedit carefully, but--let's face it--we're human and sometimes mistakes slip through. Readers like you keep us honest.

      Thank you,

      ABC News.Com

      A computer generated this response. But fear not--an actual person did, in fact, read your mail.

    I emailed back:  

      Dear ABC News:

      Thanks for your reply, computer-generated or otherwise. The authentic test of your journalistic values in this case, however, is not whether you make human mistakes but whether you publish adequate corrections, with sufficient detail so that your viewers have the opportunity to appreciate the significance of the "problem inflation" aspect of the error. It is one thing to make a grossly inflated assertion and quite another to allow that assertion to stand once you've been made aware of its propagandistic character.

    I probably should have guess what the next reply would bring:  

      Sun, 6 Jul 1997 10:30:50

      Thanks for bringing that error to our attention. We copyedit carefully, but--let's face it--we're human and sometimes mistakes slip through. Readers like you keep us honest.

      Thank you,

      ABC News.Com

      A computer generated this response. But fear not--an actual person did, in fact, read your mail.

    Oh my.

    But that wasn't the last I heard from ABC News!

    I soon received the following somewhat more promising note:  

      Tue Jul 29 19:06:32 1997

      Thank you for contacting us. You may send your comments or questions concerning ABC NEWS programs on TV by email using the following URL email form: http://www.abcnews.com/onair/email.html We hope this will be of service.

      Thank you,



    "S.Brett"--apparently an actual person!

    When my effort to email my original comment via this address failed, I got back in touch with Mr. or Ms. Brett. He or she quickly responded as follows:  

      Tue Jul 29 19:06:59 1997


      You have reached the customer service for ABCNEWS.com. We handle all inquires regarding information on the website. For questions or comments related to TV broadcass or news broadcasts, they may be sent via the URL that was provided as we do not handle the customer service on those issues. We will, however, forward your orginal message to Turning point as you have experienced difficulties with our email forms.




But that, to date at least (August 21st), was the last I heard from ABC News.

    The lesson is undoubtedly instructive:

    Problem-amplifying facts on emotion-laden topics like drunk driving are not only easily exaggerated on the TV-production side but they are also slow to undergo correction on the post-show, editorial side.

    Problem dramatization in effect is rendered more important than accuracy when it comes to TV's social-problems journalism.

    My experience also offers a small illustration of how well-defended this institutional orientation may be--even in the age of email.

© 1998 Ron Roizen


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tree in autumn

some explorations in the
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