This vehicle fire that occurred in April of 2020 on Highway 401 near Renforth Road in Toronto is an example of an incident that would not be reported as a collision as no one was injured. But the result could have been deadly. It demonstrates the imprecision of collision data and what risks the public is made aware of.

Local news media have reported on an OPP new release claiming that Middlesex County Roads in the Province of Ontario are more dangerous and that fatalities are on the increase. Some of the reported statistics include the fact that in the past 10 years, 115 people died on Middlesex County Roads under OPP jurisdiction. This was claimed to be the third highest in Ontario, behind a region in Toronto and another in Burlington. But what do these numbers really mean. Have they been adjusted for the populations within the compared regions? Has the mix of rural versus urban travel been taken into account in that comparison? Could the OPP conclusion about Middlesex County roads stand up to a rigorous statistical analysis? In 1988 there were 36 fatal collisions in Middlesex County and if this number was multiplied by 10 it would be 360, which is about three times as many as the 115 reported in the current news release. So does that mean that we are doing tremendously well? In fact, fatalities have been dropping steadily since their height in the years 1973-4. In 1973 alone 1959 persons were killed in that single year. This is the kind of context that is needed to allow the public to understand singular statistics like 115 deaths.

The total number of deaths on OPP-patrolled roads was reported to be 2,675 in the past ten years. Again, why is this statistic provided without any context? What is that number supposed to mean to the average citizen who may have no idea whether 2,675 deaths is a lot, or very little. Certainly that many deaths seems a lot but how do they compare to the number of deaths in the previous 10 years? It would be far more effective if the OPP explained how the number of fatalities have been changing in their jurisdictions over the years and what factors have led to those changes.

In another statistic, it was reported that five persons died in Middlesex County crashes so far in 2020. This statistic included parts of the Highway 401 and 402. One news outlet reported that this was “an increase of 67 per cent over 2019”. But clearly an increase from 3 collisions to 5 collisions does not provide a reason to suggest to the public that a tremendous increase has occurred.

Another news outlet reported that, as of May 4, 71 people have died in  fatal collisions on OPP-patrolled roads in 2020, compared to just 61 in 2019. But how much variance exists in these numbers from year to year? If the numbers jump up and down because they represent a small sample then the increase of 10 additional fatalities could simply demonstrate the natural fluctuation of such data. The public has no way of accessing the OPP’s data to evaluate where their reported numbers stand in the broader picture.

In another statistic “Inattentive related deaths” were reported to be up by 300%, but then it was added that the total of this number was only 12 deaths for 2020.

An OPP spokesperson was quoted as stating: “It shows the risk to our community and to those who use our roadways”. But reporting that large changes have occurred in percentages without informing the public that those percentages are based on very small numbers of collisions distorts reality. Therefore it does not provide a true indication of the risk to the public.

In contrast to these disturbing statistics another news outlet provided very different data. This outlet indicated that:

“According to West Region OPP, while fatal crashes have rison 9.5 per cent since the beginning of 2020, personal injuries are down 29 per cent and property damage has dropped by 21 per cent. West Region OPP has recorded a 44.5 per cent drop in collisions in their area between March 17 – the day Ontario declared a state of emergency – and May 4, from the same period a year ago. For all OPP-patrolled roads provincewide, crashes are down 56 per cent from a year ago.”

So what is the public to believe? Why would fatalities be increasing while overall collisions have been decreasing? Is that really what has been going on? Is it possible that the small number of fatal collisions fluctuate more than the much larger numbers of Personal Injury and Property Damage collisions?  And therefore we are simply seeing a sign of this natural fluctuation? Is it possible that overall, the collision risk is lower rather than higher in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic? Certainly that possibility is not difficult to imagine. But we need a solid and honest appraisal of these numbers from those who have access to the full dataset and are familiar with its meaning.

Historically objective data has been made available by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) in their Annual Reports. But for an unexplained reason those reports have stopped being prepared. The last one was in 2016. Since then only general overviews have been provided for 2017 and 2018 and nothing at all has been published since 2018. The 2017 and 2018 overviews contain this cautionary note:

The following tables were created using the preliminary fatality and injury data from the 2018 Ontario Collision Database. Final numbers will vary.”

But when will the final numbers come? We are two and a half years past the end of the year 2017, should it really take this long to inform the public about incidents that cause so many deaths and injuries?

The public could obtain some objective facts by examining the “Synopsis” portion of the collision facts reported by the MTO. These tables are shown below for the years 2018 (Preliminary Data), 2016 (Last full annual report) and 2011 (five years since the fast full report).

The above tables provide the following basic information about historical fatalities in Ontario:

Fatal Collisions: 2011 = 486, 2016 = 527, 2018 = 531

Persons Killed: 2011 = 498, 2016 = 579, 2018 = 578

Personal Injury Collisions: 2011 = 44076, 2016 = 39685, 2018 = 35215

While the officially-reported number of personal injury collisions have fallen, the numbers of fatal collisions and fatalities have risen. But there is no information about how these statistics have changed since 2018, or even if the 2018 preliminary data can be relied upon.

While there is less opportunity to distort the statistics regarding fatal collisions that is not so for Personal Injury collisions. Since the vast majority of such collisions are made up of minor injuries their numbers can be manipulated if minor injuries become less reported. For example so soft tissue injuries such as neck and back strains could easily be removed from the numbers if police are told to document them using different procedures.

Property Damage collisions used to be reported in the Annual Reports but that is no longer the case. Yet Property Damage collisions far outnumber Personal Injury collisions, as shown in the above tables for 2011 and 2016. A comparison between Personal Injury and Property Damage collisions is highlighted below:

Personal Injury: 2011 = 44076, 2016 = 39685

Property Damage: 2011 = 132497, 2016 = 168192

A similar problem exists with Property Damage collisions as with Personal Injury collisions. The vast majority of Property Damage collisions are of a low severity and those are easily left unreported. The Province of Ontario uses impercise instructions for how such collisions should be reported by using a monetary threshold which can be easily manipulated to permit less reporting.

While the public is provided with various collision statistics caution and a critical eye is needed to keep a lookout for instances where those numbers may be used to confuse an issue.

In the end, the public is not involved in the day to day details of collision occurrence. They must rely on police, the Ontario government and news media to organize and report that data so it is not distorted or exaggerated. When that is done properly the public gains trust in this important information. It is the public’s trust and cooperation that is greatly needed if changes are to occur in road safety that reduce the numbers and severity of these tragic events.