Storm Death

Here’s a lazyweb question, the product of an afternoon at the office with entirely too much time on our hands. (Hey, it was this or writing about White Christmas. Again.)

The “storm death toll” is a newsroom staple:

At least 19 deaths were linked to the weekend-long blast of ice and windblown snow, which led to multi-car pileups that closed sections of several major highways on the Plains.

I’d like suggestions regarding how to deconstruct this number.

Let us assume that 19 people did, in fact, die in traffic accidents related to the storm. During non-storm conditions, what would be the normal traffic death toll in the area in question? How does that compare with the death toll during the storm? (My hypothesis: that lots of people stay home during a bad-ass storm, and that despite the storm-related traffic death toll, the net effect is to reduce the total traffic death toll. Just call me “Lomborg.”)


  1. Deconstructing storm deaths

    I can think of lots of ways to present this information depending on what story I am telling.

    1. Relative risk – Nineteen people died in auto accidents during the storm yesterday. On a normal Friday, 40 would have died, 30 from DUI and 10 from atmospheric pollution. The number of DUI deaths yesterday was 3 (I have not fact checked any of these numbers). The number of deaths from pollution was 0. So the storm made us safer. We were not safer per mile driven because many people stayed inside so there were fewer miles driven. On the other hand our carbon footprint increased more slowly.

    2. Absolute risk – 19 people died yesterday while driving during the storm. Normally there would have been 40 driving related accidents during the same time period.

    3. The worth of a life – 19 people died during the storm yesterday. Half of them were under 5 years old. They had no responsibility in their deaths. The products of their expected long lives are now gone.

    There are many more ways to look at these statistics.

    Good luck,

    P.S. I essentially have a Ph.D. in statistics and have deliberately protected you from Bayes’ Theorem. 😉

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