Pedestrian deaths and ice clearing: two silly memes du jour

Did Michelle Obama cause an uptick in pedestrian deaths last year?  Did the sidewalk outside of a DC academy get de-iced because the President’s daughters attend it?  In both cases, the answer is no.  First, let’s look at the report on pedestrian deaths and WMAL’s link to the First Lady, which was linked and tweeted by Drudge this morning:

The Governors Highway Safety Association says pedestrian deaths increased in the first half of 2010 and the First Lady’s program to get Americans to be more active could be partly responsible.

Governors Highway Safety Administration spokesman Jonathan Adkins told 630 WMAL that Michelle Obama is “trying to get us to walk to work and exercise a little bit more.  While that’s good, it also increases our exposure to risk.”

After four straight years of steady declines, pedestrian deaths were up during the first six months of 2010, the latest figures available to be studied.

Other factors include distracted drivers, distracted pedestrians and what Adkins calls “aggressive pedestrians.”

Wow — pedestrian deaths must have really surged after Mrs. Obama told us to start walking to work, right?  As James Joyner discovered when researching the topic, the increase was … seven:

Via Dr. Google, I see “The Governors Highway Safety Association says in the report that 1,891 pedestrians were killed in the first six months of 2010, up from 1,884 in the same period in 2009 — a 0.4 percent increase. ”  Now, I don’t know the historical variation in these things, but I’d say offhand that this is a statistically insignificant swing.   Regardless, a variety of factors — alcohol, technology, and road design among them  – seem to be considered possible explanations for the slight reversal in trend.

Second, while I don’t pay much attention to the social campaigns of First Ladies, I don’t recall Mrs. Obama telling people that they should get drunk, strap on an iPod, and go wandering around the streets reading their BlackBerries.  She’s advising people to get some exercise, not to go wander around in traffic.  Yes, that’s technically a form of exercise.  There are others.

An increase of 0.4% is, statistically speaking, noise.  It’s a random variation that occurs in smaller data sets.  Changes in weather conditions could account for the difference.  Speaking of which, the Daily Caller reports that an ice storm in DC left sidewalks very dangerous for pedestrians this week, with a few exceptions, one of those being the sidewalks in front of the prestigious private school Sidwell Friends.  Their headline sets up an implication that the difference between Sidwell’s sidewalks and those of the public school across the street have something to do with the fact that the Obamas send their daughters to Sidwell:

Ice cleared from outside Obama daughters’ school, but not from public school across the street

The reporting is a bit better than the headline, though:

Sidwell Friends School, the education home to President Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia, made an exceptional effort to salt the icy sidewalks on campus Tuesday morning.

Exceptional, because some D.C. public schools failed to receive the same treatment, leaving treacherous pathways glazed over with hazardous ice.

They didn’t fail to receive the same treatment; they failed to make the same effort.  Sidwell cleared the sidewalks themselves to make sure their students didn’t injure themselves on the way to class.  The city apparently didn’t or couldn’t make the same effort to clear the sidewalk in front of Hearst Elementary.  Journalist Daniel Wattenberg, whose blog was the source of the Daily Caller story, got it right in his first-person report:

I don’t know who cleared the Sidwell side, but I know somebody over there understood whose responsibility it was. As far as I can tell, it’s that accountability that was missing on our side of the street, where lines of authority were as uncertain as the footing. I asked the school’s principal who to call about the ice. ‘Parks and Rec,’ he offered without hesitation.

And Wattenberg goes even further to the heart of the matter:

The Hearst ice illustrates anew an old problem with socializing responsibility: When everybody’s responsible, nobody’s responsible.

A philosopher friend of mine recently brushed off questions about the level of government at which public policy is decided as “uninteresting.” Are they? At the local level responsibility is more focused, information flows are more immediate and relevant, and personal stakes in outcomes are more meaningful. We have skin in the game, typically including asses on the line. So, we act.

Remote control tends to blur lines of responsibility and siphon energy and initiative from communities and individuals. So, we punt to the city education bureaucracy. Which punts to a principal. Who punts to Parks and Rec. At which point the city might as well punt too: Snow day!

Indeed.  Sidwell’s sidewalks got cleared because the responsibility for doing so rested with Sidwell alone, and so they acted.  That’s the reason why people with the means to do so send their children to private schools — because of the accountability and performance.  The Obamas send their daughters there because Sidwell takes care of its business; Sidwell didn’t take care of its business just because the Obamas send their daughters to the school.  If Sidwell was less competent in that regard, parents would enroll their children elsewhere.  In fact, the Sidwell lesson for today is how the private sector responds better to the needs of their consumers regardless of how influential those customers are — and emphasizes the need for more choice in primary education.

We have plenty of reasons to disagree with this administration and fight their policies.  These are not those.