Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Trouble With Statistics - And Why One is Too Many

Last week I wrote a post about the recently released traffic infraction numbers for Highways 63, 881, and 69. I found the numbers deeply troubling, because almost 3,000 charges were laid in a 2-month time span. Most of the charges were for speeding, some were for distracted driving - and 21 were for impaired driving, driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

I got some blowback on that post, people. There were those who commented it was a "depressing" read, although I find the statistics themselves the truly depressing part. One has to remember those represent only a fraction of the actual traffic infractions, as they are only the ones who get caught. We all know that many who speed or text while driving or drive while impaired don't get caught, and so those numbers are perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. There were those who thought I needed to provide context to those numbers, compare them to other highways, because maybe our numbers are lower in comparison or have improved over time. To me, though, that sort of comparison is like telling the Intrepid Junior Blogger to look around at her fellow students and see what their marks are, and then just be happy if her marks are similar or better. I guess that's not how I work. For me comparisons may be useful to some degree but when it comes to a topic like this I don't find them all that helpful. To me it doesn't matter what the statistics are on other highways, or how ours rank - all that matters to me is that we are still seeing speeding, distracted, and impaired drivers. And while that context might show we have improved on our numbers I fear a focus on that can lead to complacency - and in this topic complacency can be deadly.

I think what troubled me the most, though, is that through all the comments made about that post not one person noted the number of charges for impaired driving. That number troubles me most deeply, because the statistics for impaired drivers in Alberta are not staying the same, or going down. They are, in fact, going up. I don't know how others feel about that, but to say I am concerned is mild. I am, in fact, terrified.

Perhaps 21 impaired driving charges seems like a small number to you. For me, though, even one impaired driving charge is one impaired driver on the road too many. You see it only takes one impaired driver to alter the destiny of others, and to forever change the course of dozens of lives. Recently it happened to someone I consider a friend, a fellow writer and colleague. An impaired driver almost took the life of her husband. One single impaired driver changed the destiny of many people that day, and that is why those statistics impact me so deeply. It's because I know the impact one single impaired driver can have.

When I was in Grade Twelve I was friends with a girl who lived in a small town about three hours away from my city. I would often travel to visit her and stay for weekends, and over time I became close to many of her friends, too. One day I received a call from her, a call that changed hundreds of lives, and changed the narrative of mine. Some of her friends had been at a party, and alcohol was consumed. Four of them decided to get on two dirt bikes, and somehow the bikes collided. Two were killed instantly. One young woman lingered on in a coma. The survivor was horrifically injured. It was a Friday night gone all wrong, and I believe it changed her community forever. And it changed me, because I was only seventeen and suddenly people I had known and liked and who were the same age as me were gone forever. It was an experience that has stayed with me, too, always playing in the back of my head, because it was so senseless.

Perhaps that is why I am so "depressing" on this topic, and relentless. Perhaps it is why any number of impaired drivers is unacceptable to me, and perhaps it is why I don't really care all that much about context or how our traffic statistics compare. Perhaps it is because I know and love so many people in this community, and I never want to receive the phone call telling me they have been killed by someone driving drunk, or speeding, or texting. When that phone call comes all thought of context and how our numbers compare fly out the window, and all that matters is that it was one death that did not need to occur.

At this point I am going to connect to the blog by Verna Murphy so you can see how one statistic - one impaired driver - affected her life. Last night I found myself talking with Verna and her husband Tim and what I couldn't seem to find the words to say is how much respect I have for them - their courage, their tenacity, and their quiet way of just dealing with the kind of tragedy that I fear would make me crumble. They are pillars of strength in so many ways (this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of who these two are as people, you see, because they are also foster parents - their courage just goes on and on and my respect for them just grows and grows). This is what one statistic can do, you see. This is just one story that came from one person who drove while impaired. Every single one of those almost 3,000 traffic infractions, and particularly the 21 impaired driving charges, could have easily led to a story like this one. And I suppose that is why I will always find those kinds of statistics deeply troubling - because until those numbers are zero we will continue to see stories like this. And the only people who can change it, you see, is us.

In the end you see this blog is my narrative of life here, and my thoughts and opinions. It may on occasion lack context, and quite likely it is biased and coloured by the narrative of my life. I don't apologize for that, however, because I believe it is the narratives that hold the true power, not the statistics. And that is why I share with you Verna's story, because her narrative is more powerful than any number.


  1. So many of us know that impaired driving affect so many,and I think that everyone one of us have a personal story on how an impaired driver has affected us, but people still don't learn.

  2. Growing up myself and my siblings had been told the stories of my dad's young adult life. He is now a recovering alcoholic but in the early years of my parents marriage he was drunk quite a lot. My mother and father always told us kids that he was very lucky that he had never harmed himself or anyone else while driving drunk but there was an even more important message. When my mother knew that my father was drinking and driving she would call the cops. We always knew growing up that if we didn't have a safe ride home one of our parents would come get us, no questions asked. We also knew that if one of us ever drove after having any alcohol to drink our mother would call the cops! This is something I have told my teenage son and I will tell my daughter when she is a teenager. There is NO EXCUSE for driving while impaired!