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Bus-ted

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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As if we needed it, last week provided a fresh reminder about how the government behaves in the wild. And it has nothing to do with the IRS, Benghazi, or Eric Holder. 

Chinatown Bus

Chinatown Bus

If you live in the Northeast, you likely know about “Chinatown buses” and may even have ridden one. The “Chinatown bus” industry popped up in the late 1990s to compete with the legacy bus carriers (Greyhound, Peter Pan, and the like). The Chinatown bus companies didn’t use stations​—​people just lined up at a designated pickup spot on the street, usually in the Chinatown section of the city. (Which is why they are classified, in industry jargon, as “curbside” carriers.) The buses then whisked them off to Washington or Philadelphia or New York or Boston. The fares were cheap. Ridiculously cheap. Cup-of-coffee cheap.

A couple of years ago the federal government decided to have a look, and they discovered that these bus services were insanely dangerous. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) commissioned a study which found that curbside carriers were “seven times more likely” than traditional carriers to be involved in an accident with at least one fatality. With these findings in hand, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-Central Casting) went after the curbside companies to “reform” their business practices. As a result, 27 of those companies went out of business.

That’s not a bad headline​—​Government Saves Bus Passengers from Certain Death. There’s only one little complication to this story: The research in the NTSB report is junk.

Reason magazine recently published an exhaustive takedown of the NTSB study by Jim Epstein, and it’s a cautionary tale about both the limits of social science and the disposition of government bureaucrats.

As Epstein shows, the NTSB study was flawed in both execution and design. The NTSB counted 37 incidents in which at least one person was killed during an accident involving a curbside carrier. But in 30 of those 37 accidents, curbside carriers weren’t involved. The incidents were simply misclassified. In fact, 24 of the incidents involved Greyhound, the most established of the legacy carriers. Yet maybe that’s not surprising, given that the study classified Greyhound as one of the “curbside” carriers. Which it is not. As it happens, Greyhound, eager to get in on the Chinatown bus market, set up a subsidiary called BoltBus. But BoltBus has been quite safe and had no fatal accidents during the study period.

There were other, foundational, methodological errors. For instance, the researchers do not seem to have taken into account “miles traveled” when calculating their accident rates​—​meaning that we have no true sense of the accident rates as a function of actual operation. Even worse, they seem to have made no effort to determine whether or not the data were sufficient to accord statistical significance to their findings. A statistician from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with whom Epstein spoke believes that the NTSB report does not achieve statistical significance, and an NTSB spokesman last week confirmed his suspicions: “We do not say it is statistically significant,” the flack said. “We just put out the numbers.”

That’s very instructive. But perhaps the most instructive aspect to all of this was the government’s response to Epstein. As he was researching his piece, he asked the NTSB to share the data. They did not respond. So he filed a formal FOIA request for it. That was ignored, too. In particular, Epstein was interested in a chart showing the relative accident rates and confidence intervals. The NTSB told him that such a chart did not exist.

After Epstein painstakingly re-created the research on his own​—​and demolished the government’s findings​—​he went to the NTSB and asked them to comment. Their response: “The NTSB stands by its report.” 

And that’s that.

It got worse, if you can believe it. After a reporter from Bloomberg became interested in the story, the NTSB quickly sent him a copy of the chart they had told Epstein didn’t exist. You can vote for a new president. You can vote for a new Congress. But you can’t vote for new NTSB bureaucrats. It’s their country; we all just live in it. Because that’s how Leviathan works.

And if you find that infuriating, imagine how it must feel to have been involved in one of the 27 curbside companies that was shut down.

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