Saturday February 7 2009
Like a lot of people who spend their time thinking about evidence and risk, I’ve always fantasised that the insurance industry must possess a vast repository of useful data: the experience of centuries, carefully tabulated by actuaries into secret commercial databases containing a truth about human behaviour and risk which most epidemiologists and social scientists would kill for.
Here for example is the insurance company LV, who have managed to get their important road safety data analysis onto GMTV.
“Mounting financial pressures have led to a surge in inexperienced cyclists taking to the roads,”say LV in their press release: “resulting in a 29% increase in road accidents involving cyclists in the past six months.” It’s topical, it involves death and fear, it’s dressed in the cloak of statistical authority: this is totally going on the telly.
The first thing to note is that LV were comparing accidents in the 6 months leading up to November 2008 against accidents in the 6 months prior to that. What these insurance geniuses have failed to account for here, we might reasonably suspect, is the well-documented seasonal variation in road traffic incidents, since fewer people cycle in winter. I shall not be buying shares in this insurance company.
But better than that, LV have created a small anecdotal window into how wrong survey data can be, by giving us figures that we can compare directly against those that were created with other, probably better methods.
LV paid YouGov to sample 2,193 adults in November 2008, using an online questionnaire. They start by announcing that 43% of adults cycle, which sounds rather high to me. The General Household Survey is produced by the Office of National Statistics. It doggedly interviews all the adults in a random sample of 13,000 addresses, face to face, asking them a huge number of questions in great detail. The latest GHS reckons that 19% have cycled once in the past year, and 9% in the past 4 weeks. So YouGov and LV Insurance with their online questionnaire are disagreeing by a factor of 4 already.
“Of these,” LV go on: “11 per cent have been involved in an accident, 7 per cent of these took place in the last six months = 150,434 accidents.” We will politely brush over the fact that trivial accidents from the very recent past may be more memorable in a single point survey than older ones, and move to the published accident figures from the Department for Transport (whose website has contained not a single use of the word “snow” this week, rather brilliantly).
There were, according to the most recent figures from DfT, 16,230 accidents in the year from October 2007 to September 2008, so YouGovs’ online questionnaire disagrees this time by a factor of 10. You might speculate that DfT data is prone to under-reporting, and I would agree, but I trust this imperfect data more than I trust the opinion of a PR person who misses barn-door seasonal variation and seriously reckons half of you cycle. Also, most of those accidents reported to the DfT were themselves minor.
God I’m boring. Meanwhile the Cyclists Touring Club, who certainly sound like a dapper bunch, have collected data which shows a 91% increase in cycling in London since 2000. Regardless of how you like that figure, we can also go back through the historical DfT tables which show that far from their dramatic increase in accidents, there was in fact a 1% rise comparing the most recent quarter, July to September 2008, with the same quarter in 2007. In case you think this is just noise – and I share your caution – when compared against the average of 1994-1998, by DfT data, bicycle accidents have fallen by 33%.
So it seems accidents have gradually gone down by a third over ten years, but LV insurance and YouGov – using something my colleague Charlton Brooker has helpfully termed “PR-reviewed scientific evidence” – say accidents have gone up by a third in just six months, using data that forgets to account for the usual seasonal variation, and seems to get the prevalence of both cycling and accidents wrong, by an order of magnitude. Most importantly, this gets on the telly, with a nice puff for the LV brand, despite the fact that almost everything I have told you was spelled out to GMTV, by the boys and girls in tweed at the CTC, before it ever went to air.
Once again, there is nothing complicated here, and I will not be charging for courses, vitamin pills, or secret lifestyle programmes: eat fruit and veg, avoid excess alcohol and cigarettes, ride your bike to work, and ignore everything you see in the media.
Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
LV’s Press Release
ROAD USERS WARNED OVER INEXPERIENCED CYCLISTS
Mounting financial pressures have led to a surge in inexperienced cyclists taking to the roads, resulting in a 29% increase in road accidents involving cyclists in the past six months1.
New research from car insurer LV= reveals that one in 20 Brits2 have got on their bikes in the past 12 months in an attempt to cut costs. Yet the findings show that this has caused a surge in accidents with 150,0003 cyclists saying they have been involved in a road accident in the last six months.
A lack of formal training may be one of the causes of this problem, with more than half (52 per cent) of cyclists admitting they have never read the Highway Code’s advice for cyclists and just 42 per cent have taken a cycling proficiency course.
This is illustrated by British cyclists’ ignorance of basic road rules – with a quarter (24 per cent) unable to identify a ‘cyclists prohibited’ sign and one in five admitting to night cycling without working lights.
Other common errors include cycling on the pavement (41 per cent) – which is currently illegal, and failing to wear a safety helmet (42 per cent) which can drastically reduce the risk of injury.
In the past year one in three cyclists have cycled the wrong way up a one way street, and one in 20 (six per cent) admitted to cycling under the influence of drugs or alcohol and a similar number confessed to using a mobile phone whilst cycling.
With many thousands of inexperienced cyclists taking to the roads, motorists and other road users need to be extra vigilant to avoid collisions and cyclists need to ensure they are aware of and stick to the rules of the roads.
The majority of Brits (64 per cent) would like to see adult cycling proficiency tests become compulsory so LV= is calling on the Government and local councils to increase the availability of training for cyclists.
Emma Holyer, Spokesperson for LV= Car Insurance, said:
“Cycling is a cheap and enjoyable way to get from A to B and great exercise at the same time but it’s essential that cyclists are fully equipped to deal with the busy British roads to ensure their own safety and that of other road users.
“If cycling training was compulsory, and cyclists were better equipped to follow the rules of the roads we believe motorists, pedestrians and cyclists themselves would all benefit from fewer accidents and a safer environment on the road.”
For more information, log on to www.lv.com.
– ends –
Emma Holyer / LV= Press Office
Notes to editors
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,193 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 18th – 20th November 2008. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
1. Of the 45,434,897 UK adult population (2001 census), 43 per cent cycle. Of these, 11 per cent have been involved in an accident, 7 per cent of these took place in the last six months = 150,434 accidents. In the year six months previously 4 per cent of all accidents took place = 85,962 accidents. There has therefore been a 29 per cent increase in accidents.
2. Of the UK adult population (45,434,897) 6 per cent have started cycling in the last 12 months = 2.7 million cyclists
3. 150,434 accidents in the last six months (see above for full methodology)