Excuse me whilst I extrapolate

Time for another daft press release from insurance company esure, that uses extrapolation and a dodgy survey.  This time it claims “Sneezing fits cause more than 2 million incidents of dangerous driving on UK roads”

Quite where the figure of an “approximate 24 million motorists” who will be “affected by distracting symptoms” – that’s 72 per cent apparently – comes from isn’t entirely clear.

But that’s not the best of the torturous mathematics, it is estimated:

in excess of 2 million UK motorists (7 per cent) have had an accident, near miss, or momentarily lost control of their car as a result of sneezing while driving.  And it’s not just those behind the wheel who need to be wary of hay fever symptoms, in-car passengers were found to contribute to more than an estimated 670,0003 accidents, with sudden sneezing distracting the driver.

Throw in some more numbers… 

20 million in the UK (I presume that’s people) suffer hay fever symptoms and worrying 21 per cent of motorists that suffer from hay fever take their hands off the wheel as a result of frequent sneezing.  More than half (52 per cent) of motorists surveyed admitted to closing their eyes momentarily when sneezing and almost one third (30 per cent) admitted to taking their eyes off the road to search for tissues in their car when they are experiencing symptoms.

However, it’s not just hay fever sufferers that should be aware of such dangers as several other in-car factors were found to trigger a sneezing fit, including dust on the dashboard (32 per cent), perfume (25 per cent) and in-car fragrances or air fresheners (24 per cent).

Frankly these figures end up being meaningless – if you combined these “results” with earlier surveys by the likes of esure and Sheila’s Wheels, the likelihood of you having an “incident of dangerous driving” (whatever that contrived phrase means) must be at least 100%.  If it’s not our shoes, or our sunglasses, we’re distracted by hair in our eyes or bugs buzzing around inside our cars.  (Search this site for either brand for earlier examples of annoying releases)

Of course, esure cannot stop at the statistics and throws in a rent-an-expert, in this case, Professor Brian Lipworth professor of Allergy and Respiratory medicine, Ninewells Hospital and Medical School, Dundee.  He’s the author of a very long list of academic papers with snappy titles such as ” Treatment with diuretic augments the hypokalaemic and electrocardiographic effects of inhaled albuterol” and “Relationship of skin prick reactivity to aeroallergens and hyperresponsiveness to methacholine and adenosine challenge”

Seriously, why would such a well-published professor wish to be linked to such a press release that does little to address the issue of asthma allergy, which seems to be his core topic?

But he is quoted using the same old mathematical extrapolations:

“Hay fever sufferers can sneeze up to 50 times per day when they are affected by it – meaning that it’s not unlikely for a sneezing fit to happen while driving. When you think that sneezing once while driving at 70mph could mean travelling almost 300ft with your eyes closed, it’s clear that this is a very dangerous issue that could potentially lead to a fatal accident.

I shan’t bore you with the regional statistics that are also included to persuade the local newspapers that this “story” is relevant to their readers.  Nor the “top tips to help reduce in-car sneezing.”

However, I will comment on the odd use of numbers inserted into the text – these are presumably meant to be superscript references, but haven’t appeared as such and so would be better placed in brackets.  The result otherwise is simply confusing.  In the notes to editors, these references supposedly back up the cunning calculations evidenced in the release. 

So that 7 per cent from the esure multiplied against government data of number of licensed vehicles (in 2006) leading to a very rough “over 2 million” back of an envelope calculation.  We learn that MyVoice surveyed one thousand UK drivers of which, 2 per cent admitted to “an accident or ‘near miss’ as a result of a passenger sneezing” – as if anyone could really remember such things.

And finally, the kind PR people at Mischief PR (the most straight talking agency in the industry) divides the UK’s population (taken from the Office for National Statistics, Mid-Year Population estimates, 2006) by one-third as Allergy UK in 2008 estimate this is the percentage of the UK population affected by hay fever.

What I really dislike about these types of press releases – apart from showing the mathematical limitations of too many PR practitioners – is that they undermine genuine research and data that many organisations need the public to understand.

Such silly surveys can seem like something harmless that simply generates press coverage (and unfortunately they do), but I fail to see that they really achieve client objectives beyond counting column inches – and more importantly, they continue to support a real lack of understanding of numbers in PR and wider society.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

2 thoughts on “Excuse me whilst I extrapolate”

  1. 52 percent admit to closing their eyes when sneezing??

    Have you ever tried to keep your eyes open? I have, but failed.

    A release of epic buffoonery – well done!

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