Paul Smith and Safe Speed – the Self-Exposure of a Crank

A footnote.

By George Monbiot. Published on, 22nd December 2005.

On Tuesday, I drew attention in the Guardian to the activities of a group called Safe Speed ( Safe Speed claims it is a “road safety” campaign, but its purpose is to create a lobby for the removal of both speed limits and their means of enforcement. Unsurprisingly, its site is linked to all the usual boy racers: the Association of British Drivers, Pistonheads, It’s Your Duty etc. It is a classic case of greenwash: a lobby group claiming to stand for one thing, but in reality standing for its opposite.

The man who runs it, Paul Smith, claims to be able to prove by statistics that speed limits and speed cameras, far from saving lives, make the roads more dangerous. His “data” have been widely circulated by the speed lobbyists, and widely believed by them. They help to provide justification for organisations like Motorists Against Detection (MAD), who have been pulling down, burning and blowing up speed cameras.

After my article was published, Paul Smith challenged me to a debate. I was, of course, happy to oblige. The Right Hook, a discussion show on Ireland’s Newstalk 106, provided the forum for us (at 6pm on Tuesday 20th). Smith laid out his case, then I asked him one question: has he published his figures in a peer-reviewed academic journal?

I asked this because it is the only question which counts. Almost every day I’m approached by people making wild claims – that chocolate causes cancer or elderberries cure AIDS – and the only means I have of deciding whether such claims should be taken seriously is peer review: have they survived the scrutiny of independent experts in the field? The experts are chosen not by the researcher whose work is in question, and not by themselves, but by the editors of a journal whose reputation depends on the scientific accuracy of its contents.

Smith’s answer was more revealing than I could have imagined. Not only, he said, had he not sought to publish his “data” in an academic journal; but he had actually been asked by the leading journal in the field – Accident Analysis and Prevention – to submit his work for review, and he had not taken up the offer. Why not? Because, he said, he didn’t “have time”. He then went on to boast that he had spent 10,000 hours compiling his website.

His “data” are there, on Emailing them to Accident Analysis and Prevention would have taken 10 seconds. As formal peer review is the only means he has of demonstrating that his “results” might be worthy of discussion, you would have thought that submitting them was the first thing he would do, not the last.

So why won’t he submit his “data”? It seems to me that there can be only one reason: he fears exposure. He appears to have begun with the conclusion he wanted to reach – that speed limits must go – then devised a statistical method which would produce the goods. This is the standard approach of cranks and quacks of all descriptions. I suspect he knows that an independent expert, appointed by an academic journal, would immediately see through his method and expose it as false.

So next time you come across someone – and there are plenty in the motoring lobby – who cites Mr Smith’s work as “proof” that speed limits make the roads more dangerous, just ask them why he won’t seek scientific publication of his results.