Tim James' 72% Increase in Work/Traffic Fatalities Due to Language Barriers is a Bad Statistic, or How Even Politicians Get Chinese Whispers

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Summary: Tim James, son of Fob, is running for governor and whether or not he will be a good one is a matter of many principles. One of those principles, though, the ability to find and respond to real facts, has already been compromised in my book when he choose to play a game of cite something that cites something that cites something that cites something, rather than look up the source himself. This is the numbers behind his now being requoted statistic of 72%.

Monday, 03 May 2010

(13:50:50 CDT)

Tim James' 72% Increase in Work/Traffic Fatalities Due to Language Barriers is a Bad Statistic, or How Even Politicians Get Chinese Whispers

I won't repost the ad that Tim James has out— describing how he will, as governor, only allow English versions of the written test portion to get a drivers license to be given in the state of Alabama. You can read about here: This Is Alabama; We Speak English (AOL News). As a whole, it seems fitting for something from Alabama: a mixture of painfully simple argument and a call for common sense in a blanket of xenophobia delivered in a wrapping of friendly veneer. The only thing missing from Tim James' potent stew of a commercial was a shot at intellectuals, unless there was one coded that I missed. Instead, we get that soulful glance down as he staggers under the weight of his own common sense towards the end. At any rate, one part of that article—more than most—stood out to me. While I have no idea what the actual cost of hiring a translator to translate a few page test and to print out the surely no more than few thousand copies needed per decade might be, I did notice the AOL News article had an alarming quote: "But James says the exams are a public safety issue. On his campaign website, he cited a 2004 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that connected a 72 percent increase in work/traffic-related fatalities to drivers' inability to read road signs in English."

Road signs? The geometric shapes and colors that are recognizable by school children? Whose most important characteristic are numerals recognized around the world? Whose "English" content might serve as explanation, but surely not required. Do you need to know why the speed limit is 35mph to obey it (presumably, by the way, the answer is yes, considering the number of people I know who will speed through just about any slow-down zone they come across if they deem it safe in their humble, humble opinion).*

That made no sense to me, so I wanted to track this down and find out what the crap was going on. This lead me, next, to Tim James' campaign blog and an entry called: "Common Sense vs. Political Correctness". In it, the quote of the statistic is given as "He pointed to a 2004 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that attributed a sharp increase in work fatalities in Alabama including a 72% increase in work-related traffic fatalities, to the fact that increasing numbers of employees and drivers could not read or understand warning signs in English." And this time, he cited a source: The Birmingham News, 'State workplace perils deadly'. Sept. 23, 2004. Which is good, because I had been on the BLS's page and had found no such report in their archives.

Let's keep going back, though. I did a Google search to find other places that cited that same article. One, kind of recent, was over at the totally unbiashed sounding English Language Unites in an entry entitled "Show your support for HB 262 and SB 63 in the Tennessee General Assembly". This time, the quote (again attributed to that article in The Birmingham News) comes out as "In 2004 a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics official attributed a sharp rise in work related fatalities in Alabama including a 72% increase in work-related traffic fatalities, to the fact that increasing numbers of employees and drivers could not read or understand warning signs in English." It's a subtle shift, if you notice, but we are no longer citing a report by the BLS, but now we are citing an official.

Next step back. On the site ProEnglish.org, I found a pdf of a case: Cole et al v Bob Riley et al. The complaint was identical, more or less, to what Tim James is claiming...that it is just downright non-Alabama to have any official test be given something other than in English. Dag-nabbit. There are lots of historical precendents offered, explaining the role of English in the State, that are interesting to read and are probably a better basis than what was quoted by Tim James, by the way, but we eventually get back to the same old quote, almost, this time it is rendered: "Last September, one Alabama official attributed the steep rise in Alabama‚Äôs work-related fatalities—the large majority of which are due to traffic accidents—to the fact that a growing number of workers cannot read or understand signs in English." Our BLS official has become an "Alabama Official". It goes even further, though, in claiming that the steep rise of accidents across all work place fatalities is mostly based on English skills.

That's at least three places that cited one News article, and all three disagree on what it says. So, the time has come, what does it say?

On September 23, 2004, in a The Birmingham News article named "STATE ON-THE-JOB FATALITIES RISE NATIONAL NUMBER NEARLY UNCHANGED":

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said 121 Alabamians died on the job last year, compared with 102 in 2002. The increase in Alabama workplace deaths was the highest among Southern states, ahead of Virginia and North Carolina with a jump of 13 fatalities each, said Victoria Dinkins, an economist with the agency in Atlanta.

Across the nation, 5,559 people died in work-related incidents in 2003, an increase of just 0.005 percent from the year before. Among Southern states, Alabama's increased workplace fatality rate was exceeded in percentage terms only by West Virginia's 28 percent gain.

Dinkins said transportation accidents accounted for the bulk of Alabama's 2003 work-related fatalities. Fatalities involving truck drivers and workers driving company cars or personal vehicles on the job rose to 62 last year from 36 in 2002.

The language barrier for Hispanic workers could also play a role in increased Alabama on-the-job fatalities, Dinkins said.

"If these workers can't recognize or interpret a sign that shows that something is dangerous, that will present a problem," she said. "A further problem may exist even if an employer displays a warning sign in Spanish and the workers may speak Spanish, but are not literate in English or Spanish. Therefore they would be unable to read a sign regardless of the language it is written in."

The mysterious official is Virginia Dinkins, an Atlanta Economist. The 72% is a 26 incident increase. And the explanation, the tie-in to their foreignness, is a lot less tenable here than the later articles made out. What's more, those of us who, you know, are able to read English might note that there is a gap in the rhetoric between the one clause—traffic accidents on the rise—and the next—language barriers can cause overlooking warning signs. Go and read it again. She's not saying they can't read road signs. She's saying that, in non-traffic jobs, they can't read signs posted at their workplace. This whole game of Chinese Whispers came down to a pro-English group reading a newspaper article wrong, or, possibly, lying about what they had read.

What's more, if you sort through various tables on the BLS website, especially the ones on Alabama, you will find all sorts of problems with the logic. The number of on-site incidents has been lower every other year besides the one in question (2003). The number of Hispanic related incidents that year, total, was eight. EIGHT. There was a twenty-six incident increase and the total number was eight that dealt with Hispanics out of all categories. Want to guess who is having the most on-site accidents? If you guess "whitey", you would be right (the year in question, ninety-two of the one-hundred and twenty-four incidents were due to white, non-Hispanic workers, which is 74%, greater than the percentage of Alabamans that are white, and the traffic related incidents were 81% due to white, non-Hispanic drivers. In fact, with all this crap spewed by over the past few weeks against non-English drivers, only two (2!) traffic related fatalities were by races other than white and black non-Hispanic (that doesn't mean they were not foreign, I know, but keep that in mind).

There you go, a game of Chinese Whispers that began with an unwarranted attack on language barriers, from the stats I can see, that lead to more and more slights against, let's be honest, Mexicans and other Hispanics coming to our state. The statistics above have large held suit, by the way. In the most recent one, there was a single traffic incident due to a non-White/Black driver. Despite the increased Hispanic and "foreign" population.

Of course, I have heard the statistic quoted on message boards as "Hispanics cause 72% of accidents in Alabama" and "There was a 72% increase in traffic accidents due to foreigners not able to read our road signs!". The game of whispers goes on, of course. As it always will. We don't read the news. We seek proof that we are right.

Si Vales, Valeo

*: While it struck me as the height of idiocy to continue to hark upon the necessity of reading road signs to be able to understand that, say, a yellow rhombus means slow down, apparently other bloggers have done just that. In other news, the 11 languages are apparently: Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai, and Vietnamese.

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