08 March 2005

Trashing a crash test story

If you think news media never accept news release copy almost verbatim, then check out this little piece from Associated Press, carried on the Globe website.

According to AP, in a series of tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit consumer group,

Quote: Eleven of 13 cars involved in new side-impact crash tests performed by an independent, nonprofit organization earned a “poor,” the lowest of four ratings, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said.

The Chevrolet Cobalt and the Toyota Corolla earned the second-highest rating of “acceptable” when tested with their optional side air bags. Without them, they earned “poor” ratings.

The vehicles that earned a “poor” rating were the Dodge Neon, Ford Focus and Volkswagen's New Beetle, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Spectra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Saturn Ion, Suzuki Forenza and Suzuki Aerio. The results were released Sunday.: end quote.

Now flip over to the IIHS site and see what their release and crash results said.

Quote: Most small car designs earned poor ratings in side impact crash tests recently conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only the Chevrolet Cobalt and Toyota Corolla, both equipped with optional side airbags with head protection, performed well enough to earn the Institute's second highest rating of acceptable. Without the optional airbags, the Cobalt and Corolla are rated poor for side impact protection.: end quote.

See that second sentence - "Only the"? It's almost identical in both the release and the AP piece and the general thrust of the lead is the same in both the release and the story.

Here's the catch. Unfortunately, the release doesn't accurately report the results of the tests overall.

Yes, it is true that almost all the vehicles failed the side impact tests without having option side airbags installed - most cars and trucks would fail the test - as they did in this test. Even worse, IIHS did not say in the release that they did not test all models with side airbags. Some had standard side airbags; some had none even though they were available as an option. Therefore any comparisons are completely invalid.

IIHS also didn't point out in the lead (the opening bit) that in fact almost all the cars they tested scored well (acceptable to good) in front-on collisions. Results varied for rear impacts and, again, not all models had been thoroughly tested at the time of the news release.

Inaccurate or incomplete data seriously skews the test results and hence the accuracy of any conclusions drawn from the data. The problem for consumers only gets worse when the public relations people for the IIHS spin their news release.

The whole thing ends up in a major roll-over when Associated Press takes the release and paraphrases it without apparently bothering to check the IIHS website and the data tables. In the old days before the Internet, reporters on a tight deadline could be forgiven for not having time to follow through on every single release they take and turn into a news story.

It only took me about 30 minutes to see the crap from IIHS and generate this little comment. It wouldn't take much longer to write up a more accurate story for the AP wire. For that matter I might have even uncovered another story altogether: consumer watchdog agencies that report their own data unreliably.