GA DOT Wants to Scare You Straight

The state employees who make up the Department of Transportation’s crash reporting unit may seem like the harbingers of doom. It is their job every major holiday to work the numbers and then unveil their predictions – predictions of how many people will die on the road during the holiday.

This unit, led by Norm Cressman, might seem a little morbid. And if they do, they do not really mind. In fact, that means they have done their job. When the DOT makes their estimates, part of what they hope to do is scare their audience – Georgia’s unsafe drivers – into driving more safely to prove them wrong.

The Highway Patrol publicizes the crash reporting unit’s predictions for six major American holidays: Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. All of these holidays are well known for both driving hazards and aggressive police intervention.

Georgia DOT spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan explained that these predictions are meant as a reminder for drivers. The implication is that drivers should slow down and remember to be considerate over the holidays.

For example, they predicted that over Christmas, there would be 34 traffic related deaths.

This is a depressing estimate, to imagine that so many people would die in just a few short days. But it is not always entirely clear what these numbers mean, or where they come from. How did Cressman’s crew reach this conclusion?

By committee.

Cressman will ask two or three members of his staff to produce estimates for a given holiday. These estimates are drawn from historical data, in light of the hours during the holiday period. When those numbers are on the table, they then sit down as a group to discuss which numbers seem to make the most sense.

“And then I’ll kind of make the final say,” Cressman said.

It seems rather disappointing when viewed this way. There is no crystal ball, no supernatural inspiration. Rather, the predictions are nothing more than educated guesses from a group of number crunchers. It is less impressive, but does that make it less trust worthy? Well, that may depend on your view of crystal balls.

Cressman has confessed that he is not as confident in their numbers as he used to be. Two of the unit’s employees recently retired and were replaced, and the group’s accuracy has suffered somewhat for it.

“The folks that were here before, they were a lot better at it than we are,” Cressman said.

The unit misses their experience.

The DOT’s crash reporting unit was not particularly accurate over the Thanksgiving. Though in this case, that may be more reassuring than not. They had estimated there would be 16 deaths and 1,398 injuries in crashes. The death count was not so very far off at a totaled 13, but the injury estimate was notably too high. Only 730 injuries were reported over Thanksgiving.

There any number of factors which could have influenced these numbers. Weather, the economy, and all of the other variables that can affect travel plans may have come into play to make Cressman’s prediction so markedly off. Whatever it was, though, in this case, we can’t be too unhappy that he was wrong.