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Sometimes a "fact" is repeated so often that it becomes true, regardless of where it came from or whether the original study exists to back up the claim.
A good example is this tantalizing statistic, posted on the city of Portland’s Safe Routes to School program summary page: "Nationally, 50% of children who are hit by cars near schools are hit by cars driven by parents of other students." The figure also is contained in a how-to safe routes guide put out by the state. The claim is repeated in other Portland safe routes newsletters and in brochures, sometimes with the "national" modifier, sometimes not.
And while the number on its face seems to make sense -- who is most likely to be driving near schools than parents? -- the figure begged even more questions: How many children are hit by cars each year? What is the sample size? And how did they track the numbers to figure that parents of other children were involved in half of those cases?
In short, is this percentage accurate? PolitiFact Oregon set to find out.
First up, a call to the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Spokesman Dan Anderson consulted with Gabriel Graff, a city safe routes organizer. Anderson said the city doesn’t track the number of children hit by cars near schools, so we have no idea whether the national number is true in Portland.
But Anderson did come up with a source for the statistic: the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, an advocacy group launched in 2005 to score money and support from Congress for safer roads to school. (Its 500-plus members include cities, counties, bike shops and pedestrian friendly planners.) The footnote on the group’s "National Statistics on School Transportation" cites yet another source: "Washington State Department of Transportation; cited in Safe Routes to School, National Highway Transportation & Safety Administration, 2002."
So on to the Washington State Department of Transportation. There we found Charlotte Claybrooke, the person responsible for coordinating the safe routes program in our neighbor state. She said she was unaware of any study and wrote: "Unfortunately, I can't be of much help except to say that I've tried to run that statistic down before and could not find a reference to substantiate it." Washington does not use the figure.
At the same time, we checked with Julie Yip, the safe routes coordinator at the Oregon Department of Transportation. Yip did an online search and came up with a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which repeats the figure and sources "Kallins, Wendy. Safe Routes to School. US Department of Transportation: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."
Ah-ha, a name -- albeit misspelled -- of someone who may have conducted the study or seen it first hand. Wendi (not Wendy) Kallins, we learned, launched the original safe routes pilot in Marin County, California, and still lives there. We asked via e-mail whether she had details of the original study.
She wrote: "I get lots of inquiries about this one - it came from Washington state and I subsequently cannot find the original document I got it from. I believe it came from a school traffic calming document back in the ‘90's. Since I can't verify it, I don't recommend using the stat unless you can track down the original."
We asked Kallins whether she was comfortable with the fact that public agencies and public policy groups were using the figure in their literature. Her response? "I can't speak for them. They may have tracked down the original source."
But it’s clear that Portland and Oregon have not. Yip said she would stop using the figure, since the National Center for Safe Routes to School, which is not the same as the partnership, could not verify the figure and does not use it. Anderson said the city will scrub the statistic from its website barring last-minute evidence.
The message remains the same, he said. "Reducing the need for children to be driven to and from school means fewer cars on the road and fewer opportunities for crashes."
Fewer people could argue with that.
We acknowledge this is not a statistic that will alter how much Congress spends on safer roads. (By the way, Oregon received more than $6 million of $612 million for 2005-2009.) We’re not suggesting that proponents of safer roads have trumped up a figure to champion a cause.
But the twisted tale of this claim is a case study in how falsehoods get passed along with good intentions and nothing to back them up. Just because a statement keeps getting repeated doesn't mean it's true -- even if a source is cited. We find the claim False.
E-mails from Dan Anderson, public affairs Portland Bureau of Transportation, Nov. 9, 2010
E-mails from Charlotte Claybrooke, Washington State Department of Transportation, Nov. 9, 2010
Emails from and interview with Julie Yip, Oregon Department of Transportation, Nov. 9, 2010
E-mails from Wendi Kallins, Nov. 9, 2010
U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Safe Routes to School
Report of the National Safe Routes to School Task Force, "Safe Routes to School : A Transportation Legacy A National Strategy to Increase Safety and Physical Activity among American Youth," July 2008
Safe Routes to School National Partnership, ""National Statistics on School Transportation"
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