Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Math Challenged: Traffic-related law officer deaths

As we think and grieve for those that protect us, I issue a plea to be statistically accurate when reporting the causes. This article reports on a study by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
According to preliminary statistics compiled through Monday, traffic fatalities claimed the lives of 73 of the 151 officers killed in 2006. This compares to 63 officers killed in traffic accidents in 2005, the groups said.
Simple odds factor into the increase, too, the groups said. There are more patrol officers on the roads now than ever — 900,000 sworn officers patrolling the roads compared to 693,127 in 1997, according to federal statistics cited by the report.

The traffic deaths outpaced gun-related fatalities as they have in past years. Officers shot to death in 2006 declined 9 percent, from 59 last year to 54, the report said.

Over the past 30 years, the number of officers killed in automobile crashes has jumped by 40 percent while the number shot to death during that period has declined by about the same amount.

OK. If you know the number of deaths and the number of police officers on the street, would it not be more statistically accurate to cite a death rate instead of reporting an absolute number? That would be more impressive and demonstrate a statistically significant trend. Should the trend be going up or going down, then corrective action could target the root causes. Otherwise, we might draw false conclusions due to poor presentation of the data. Maybe a minor point, but we should be improving mathematical literacy rather than obscuring what might be an important story.

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