BLOG: How the BCGEU is Manipulating Data

The BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU kicked off a media campaign a couple of months ago on behalf of the Commercial Vehicle and Safety inspectors. Billboards with words ‘That truck behind you may not be safe’, coupled with radio commercials, and an online package that includes photos of busted trucks and a video, were part of the package.

The campaign relies heavily on statistics, highlighting truck traffic rates, crashes, out-of-service rates and violations, coupled with staffing numbers from the CVSE.

Truckers were ticked off, and rightly so. They’re still upset. The general public should be upset, too; the whole campaign is, well, dishonest. The data presented is out of context, it’s using “road safety” as the moral high ground, and capitalizing on the public’s fear of big trucks.

And while I’m hesitant to give this media campaign more attention than it deserves, I’m offended, too. Not from a trucking P.O.V., more from a misplaced idealism that what organizations of any stripe put out into the public should, at the very least, strive for honesty, sincerity, and accountability to some degree. We may allow some leeway from organizations and polticians to skew their message, but this is just too much.

The campaign isn’t blatantly lying; many of the facts are legitimate. It’s the way in which they are organized and presented to the public.

The BCGEU is careful to protect themselves, too: ‘We’re not saying all trucks are bad, but here are the facts. You put them together.’

It’s like me putting french fries, cheese curds and gravy in front of you: “I’m not saying this makes a poutine, I’m just giving you ingredients. You make a meal out of it.”

You’re gonna make a poutine.

Last week, I spoke with Chris Bradshaw, communications officer with the BCGEU and the one handling the CVSE campaign file. For the BCGEU, the goal of the campaign, explained Bradshaw, was two-fold: increase the profile of inspectors, “and in doing that, making people realize that we have a real road safety issue here.”

They then started researching, and, Bradshaw said, “it showed what we are showing in our campaign; there was an over 45 percent increase in the number of commercial vehicles that our inspectors were responsible for overseeing since 2003, in all weight classes.”

Bradshaw explained the BCGEU’s logic like this: truck traffic has increased 45 percent, there has been a 26 percent reduction in the number of inspectors, and the overall number of crashes was up over 12.5 percent.

Let’s take that apart:

Increase in truck traffic + reduced CVSE staffing levels + increase in truck crashes = trucks crashing because of less CVSE inspectors. Solution: hire more CVSE inspectors.

Asked if the reason for the increase in crashes is due to less inspectors, Bradshaw said that “it is difficult to draw any direct correlation when it comes to things like accident and safety […] what we’re doing is putting the facts out there and saying ‘make up your own mind’.”

So it’s an indirect correlation?

“We’re putting it out there as a total. We believe, as our members do, that the roads are less safe. We want to put as much information out there so that people can make up their own minds.”

Can we say that vehicle crashes are directly related to the fewer number of inspectors on the road, Bradshaw asked me before answering his own question: “I don’t know if anybody can do that without more complete data.”

BCGEU took a year to put together this campaign; in a matter of hours, I was able to look closer at their data, and find more complete data. Like this 190-page report on truck crashes in B.C.

It presents all types of wonderful information, drilling down to driver behaviour (speeding, fatigue (speaking of fatigue, wonder why the BCGEU didn’t grasp onto that one. Kind of a gimme.)), road conditions, who was at-fault (passenger vehicle or truck) and on and on.

You can also check Statistics Canada. Or Transport Canada. Or go south and pull some CSA data to see what the typical mechanical violation is (lighting!). Taken together, you get a much better picture of the reasons behind heavy-truck crashes.

If the BCGEU was sincere in its motivation to improve road safety, to “just put all the information out there,” they would’ve included that data. It’s really important data.

And it’s data that should come as no surprise to the trucking industry. Typically, industry wants that data so they know where to put their energies. Decreasing the crash rate is in everyone’s best interest.

To be clear, nobody is attacking the CVSE or what the BCGEU wants from the government on behalf of its members. As Lousie Yako told me, “that’s their issue.”

The problem here is the campaign itself and how it takes the easy road by using trucks as bad guys, while inadvertently putting stress on the relationship between CVSE inspectors and truckers (this wasn’t their intention, to be fair).

“If you’re taking the campaign forward into the public and you’re using an issue like road safety, which is an important issue, you want to ideally put together messaging that is going to speak to the people in their vehicles, where they are traveling, and that brings it home to them and makes it personal,” Bradshaw explained. “We can sit there and spout all kinds of statistics and people’s eyes glaze over, but when it becomes personalized and it comes home so that their own personal relationship with the vehicles on the road beside and behind them, then it hopefully raises interest and gets people finding out more.”

But people won’t find out more because they are busy and they have better things to do. Their eyes will “glaze over”, anyway.

And many people will take the media campaign at its word; people of a certain political leaning tend to trust unions. For a union to present data out of context is one thing, putting down another group of workers to further the goals of its members is bad form.

There’s a lot more to take apart in the campaign, and a lot more to say in general (see Today’s Trucking’s August issue for more. Or keep checking this blog as I have a feeling I’ll be writing a response to the BCGEU’s response to this blog), but this is already getting too lengthy.

It’s time to move on.

Your song of the day is “Baby Ran” by the very fine B.C. band 54-40.

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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