Spam Journalism: The spurious use of sensational headlines to add spice to an otherwise pointless article.
I’m impressed. I had to seriously consider a new category for this series. This is my first sample of Spam Investigative Journalism. Check this out:
“Alcohol watchdogs are calling on the Government to fast-track drink-drive reforms after a Herald on Sunday test showed adults could consume almost a six-pack of beer and still beat the breathalyser.
“The experiment was sparked by Transport Minister Steven Joyce’s comment that someone could drink three-quarters of a bottle of wine and still drive legally.
“Two adults – one male and one female – drank several bottles of beer and still tested under the limit during a controlled test at Pukekohe Park.
“However, instructors rated their driving after having the drinks as “very aggressive” and “not safe”.”
So, according to the Herald on Sunday, alcohol lobby groups are advocating that the Minister of Transport, Steven Joyce, should lower the legal blood alcohol limit for driving, based on a completely non-scientific demonstration involving two people. Words fail me. This is “investigative” journalism for the sake of sensationalism. The Herald has decide to back the campaign for dropping the limit and puts forward this utter tripe in support of it.
In case you think I am being a little harsh, the full article detailing their methods is here. Apparently they took four comedians (how appropriate!) and got them to do a driving skills test. Then they give them six standard drinks in 90 minutes and tested their breath alcohol and driving abilities again. Finally then got them completely smashed and retested again. Two were over the limit already, after six standard drinks (which is why only two were mentioned in the spam article.
There was, of course, no standardisation for weight and age; and food intake was not mentioned, though I noticed a bag of crisps in the photo.
Apart from the absurdity of trying to make any sort of conclusion from a test involving only four people, the results (not yet on line) themselves are very equivocal. The judgement of “not safe” on driver’s abilities, after the six units of alcohol, appears to be an entirely subjective one on behalf of the advanced driving course instructors supervising the test. However, the actual scores out of 10 for each driver are hardly changed (one actually improved). Only when their breath alcohol is over 500 do their driving skills markedly deteriorate.
So the take-home message from this could just as well be that if you drink 6 units of alcohol rapidly and then drive you have a 50:50 chance of being arrested and humiliated (not good odds) but your driving, while much poorer, will still not be as bad as the driving of some sober people! Hardly a ringing endorsement of reducing the drink/driving limit.
There is good medical evidence that impairment of motor reflexes occurs after your first drink and that the depressive effect initially increases rapidly then tailors off (i.e. your first couple of drinks cause more additional impairment than the next two). The extra “one for the road” is nowhere near as important as the eight before it. This means that you can make a reasonable scientific case for an effectively zero limit (anything below 0.02), but the case for lowering the limit from 0.08 to 0.05 is not as strong. Still, there is good epidemiological evidence that lowering the limit does reduce accidents so the case is supportable, without resorting to nonsense investigations like this.