Washington State Patrol Puts The Cart Ahead Of The Horse

It’s common when dealing with safety issues to lose sight of what’s measurable and addressable through logic and get caught up in the emotion of an anecdote. Distracted driving deaths in the US totaled over 3,000 people, which isn’t far off of what we saw on 9/11. But, when we see people attempting to address the problem with advanced driver assistance (ADAS) and other measures, the slightest technical hiccup that shows up on in-development systems inspires hatred on the internet. “The public didn’t sign up to be beta testers with these wannabe self-driving cars!” they say, hysterically.

Once you see this kind of error once, you start seeing it everywhere. After 9/11 itself, thousands of people died because they were afraid of plane travel and drove their cars on long trips instead, because the emotional impact of one single big event was larger than the very real chance of people dying one or two at a time in car accidents. Combine that with people who just aren’t used to long-haul driving and don’t know that it’s good to take a break, and you get a big disaster, but spread out over a whole country and over months so that it doesn’t hit the news.

I could go on with more examples all day, but before I get to today’s example, I want to point out how important it is to call out this fallacy when we come across it. Not only will it help with the adoption of autonomous vehicles and safety systems for manually-driven vehicles, but it will help society at large come up with more sane public policy on life-saving issues. If we can get people to stop putting carts before horses, we can do better.

Today’s Cart-Before-Horse Nonsense

A recent article over at Jalopnik covers the hysterical campaign the Washington State Patrol is waging against a law that restricts law enforcement officers. More than a year ago, Washington state lawmakers passed HB 1054, a law that restricts vehicle pursuits to only two circumstances:

“There is probable cause to believe that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense or sex offense.”

“There is reasonable suspicion a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a driving under the influence offense.”

It used to be that people regularly died in Washington State when a vehicle pursuit gone wrong would end in disaster. Nationally, car chases with police were great for TV ratings for news networks, who would plaster live footage of big car chases on the national small screen. It even became an important plot point in one of the Anchorman movies.

But, the public started wondering whether it was worth the death and destruction to catch one bad guy, so reforms passed on most states restricting police pursuits to circumstances where there was an ongoing threat to the public. Letting the bad guy get away (as long as he wasn’t continuing to hurt people) is preferable to catching him after he speeds through a school zone and wipes out kids. Experienced cops know that you can always catch him later.

Since Washington’s reform law passed, only one person has died in a police chase. That’s still one more death than we’d like to see, but it’s better than what we get with unrestricted pursuit policy.

Now the State Patrol is giving media footage of bad guys (who are probably just speeding) getting away from the cops, who aren’t allowed to chase them now. This emotional coverage and footage of dangerous behavior is meant to sway the public toward letting the police chase people, but we also have to be honest about what a chase means: even more dangerous behavior that kills innocent bystanders in far too many cases.

The key takeaway here: when people try to pull this tactic (“Look at this dangerous video!”) against ADAS and autonomous vehicle testing, they’re doing the same thing WSP does. The response should always be the same: inviting people to look at the big picture instead of today’s emotional anecdote.

Featured image provided by Washington State Patrol.





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