Errors mar New York Times distracted-driving coverage

The New York Times’ September 28 story about truck driver distraction presented misleading characterizations of American Trucking Associations (ATA) policies and views on the subject, and included factual errors on truck crash data compiled by federal safety officials.

A Times editor told ATA it will run two corrections to the article’s representation of truck crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The first error: The story stated that NHTSA data shows the number of large-truck-involved crash deaths rose significantly from 1997 to 2007, when in fact the number decreased by 11%.

The error occurred because the newspaper staff misinterpreted figures that NHTSA published in its “Traffic Safety Facts” for 1997 and 2007. The two figures were not comparable. The 1997 figure was for trucks over 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, while the 2007 figure was for trucks over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, which inflated the 2007 number.

The second error: The story stated that large trucks “caused” the deaths that occurred in those crashes, when actually NHTSA states only that those crashes “involved” large trucks. In fact, it is most likely that a majority of those deaths were caused by automobile drivers, not truck drivers. Numerous scientific studies, including one by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, have found that approximately 75% of all fatal car-truck crashes are caused by the car driver.

Although the newspaper received the following ATA policy on driver distraction September 2, it was not included or referred to in the article: “ ATA supports the safe use of technologies and encourages drivers and/or motor carriers to consider a range of policies and safeguards intended to reduce, minimize and or eliminate driver distractions that may be caused by the increased use of electronic technologies (eg, global positioning systems, cellular phones, etc) during the operation of all types of motor vehicles. ATA strongly encourages and recommends that manufacturers of these devices, vehicle manufacturers, policymakers, motor carriers, and organizations representing motor carriers and the motoring public promote and adopt awareness, training, safety policies on the use of such technologies—unless required by current laws or regulations—during the operation of a motor vehicle on our nation's highways.”

Other problems with the September 28 story include:

· This statement was unattributed: “The trucking industry says these devices … should be exempted from legislation that would ban texting while driving.” This is inaccurate.

· The statement “we think that’s overkill” was said to refer to federal legislation that would pressure states to ban texting. In fact the statement referred to unintended consequences that might occur from the legislation.

·The story suggested the sole driver profiled in the article was fairly representative of 3.4 million commercial drivers.

Less than a week ago, an editorial in the Times contained similar incorrect statements. ATA has requested a correction to the editorial and submitted a letter to the editor about it as well. Problems with the editorial included:

·Like the September 28 article on driver distraction, the September 23 editorial incorrectly presented federal safety statistics, saying that there are “more than 5,000 fatal truck crashes a year.” In fact the number of such crashes has been significantly below 5,000 per year since 1980, even though the number of miles traveled by trucks each year has substantially increased. This error occurred because Times staff read from the wrong column in a chart of truck crash statistics. (Source: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Analysis Division / Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2007, published January 2009, Page 4, Table 1.)

· An incorrect assertion that a change in 2004 to commercial drivers’ hours of service was a “loosening of regulations on drivers’ schedules and driver fatigue.” The changes shortened drivers’ work days by at least one hour, sometimes more, and lengthened drivers’ daily rest periods by two hours, while allowing one more hour of driving within the shortened day. That cannot constitute a “loosening.”

·A false accusation that the trucking industry was responsible for “efforts to thwart and defeat policies and programs needed to protect the public and promote the health and safety of truck drivers.”

The ATA has also asked the newspaper’s Public Editor to review the errors in the article and the editorial.

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