Drug driving: dodgy numbers in a good cause?
More than a year ago, ESR scientists produced a report on drugs and alcohol found in blood samples taken after fatal crashes. Now, the
Drug Foundation is launching a publicity campaign using the data. Their website says “Nearly half of drivers killed on New Zealand roads are impaired by alcohol, other drugs, or both.” But that’s not what the ESR report found. [Edited to add: the Drug Foundation is launching a campaign, but the TV campaign isn’t from them, it’s from NZTA]
The ESR report defined someone as impaired by alcohol if they had blood alcohol greater than 0.03%, and said they tested positive for other drugs if the other drugs were detectable. If you look at the report in more detail, although 351/1046 drivers had detectable alcohol in their blood, only 191/1046 had more than 0.08%. At 0.03% blood alcohol concentration there may well be some impairment of driving, and near 0.08% there’s quite a lot, but we can’t attribute all those crashes to alcohol impairment rather than inexperience, fatigue, bad luck, or stupidity. At least the blood alcohol concentrations are directly relevant to impairment. An assay for other drugs can be positive long after the actual effect wears off. For example, a single use of cannabis will show up in a blood test for 2-3 days, and regular use for up to a week. In fact, the summary of the ESR report specifically warns “Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that the presence of drugs and alcohol in the study samples does not necessarily infer significant impairment.” Regular pot smokers who are scrupulously careful not to drive while high would still show up as affected by drugs in the ESR report. In fact, the Drug Foundation makes this distinction when they talk about random roadside drug testing, pointing out the advantages of a test of actual impairment over a test of any presence of a drug.
The Drug Foundation also did a survey of community attitudes to driving while on drugs (also more than a year ago), and it is interesting how many people think that stimulants and cannabis don’t impair their driving. However, if you look at the survey, it turns out that it was an online poll, and “Respondents were recruited to the online survey via an advertising and awareness campaign that aimed to stimulate interest and participation in the study.” Not surprisingly, younger people were over-represented “The mean age of respondents was 38.1 years”, as were people from Auckland and Wellington. Maori, Pasifika, and Asians were all under-represented. 36% of respondents had used cannabis in the past year, more than twice the proportion in the Kiwi population as a whole. No attempt was made to standardise to the whole NZ population, which is the fundamental step in serious attempts at accurate online polling. [If we could use the data as a teaching example, I’d be happy to do this for them and report whether it makes any difference to the conclusions]
And while it’s just irritating that news websites don’t link to primary sources, it is much less excusable that the Drug Foundation page referencing the two studies doesn’t provide links so you can easily read them. The study reports are much more carefully written and open about the limitations of the research than any of the press releases or front-line website material.[The NZTA referencing is substantially less helpful]
For all I know, the conclusions may be broadly correct. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many drug users do believe silly things about their level of impairment. Before the decades of advertising and enforcement, a lot of people believed silly things about the safety of drunk driving. And the new TV ads are clever, even if they aren’t as good as the ‘ghost chips’ ad. But the numbers used to advertise the campaign don’t mean what the people providing the money say they mean. That’s not ok when it’s politicians or multinational companies, and it’s still not ok when the campaigners have good intentions. [Edited to add: I think this last sentence still stands, but should be directed at least equally at the NZTA].
Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »