Quick, what do you know about getting out of quicksand?

Don’t struggle? Move slowly? Stay calm?  Maybe you’ve seen Bear Gryllis do his Man vs Wild escape and know to try to ease your way on top of it before it sucks you under. Or maybe you’ve seen Adam and Jamie myth-bust “killer quicksand” (or you happened upon this study in Nature) and you are aware that being “sucked under” by quicksand is merely a Hollywood myth.

Aside from being a convenient plot device used in film to knock off a character,  allow our hero a dramatic rescue, or even add humour, in reality most people will never encounter quicksand – and if they did, it almost certainly wouldn’t kill them.

So the question is this: Why do we know anything (right or wrong) about escaping from quicksand when it has almost no relation to our lives?

Because death by quicksand is dramatic. The thought of it is terrifying. It makes for suspenseful movie scenes and sensational headlines. Quicksand grabs readers! But for all intents and purposes, quicksand is not something most people need to be concerned about.

And that is how I define a Quicksand Story:  An exaggerated story filled with frightening scenarios, dire warnings, “real-life” this-could-happen-to-you examples, and precautionary measures you must take right now! All to warn and protect you from a threat which is remote, unlikely and may, in fact, not even exist.

The quicksand idea came to me last week when the media grabbed ahold of a study by the CDC on the dangers of sleeping with pets. People who sleep with their pets, journalists warned, could catch diseases like plague, rabies, antibiotic-resistant infections; meningitis; and cat-scratch fever – not to mention, be infested by external and internal parasites. Time magazine declared, “Letting Pets Share Your Bed Is Harmful to Your Health.” AOL went as far as saying, Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie in Your Bed Can Kill You.

Kill me? Really?

Well probably not, as many bloggers ,  commentators , and other rational thinkers were quick to point out after reading the actual report [pdf].   But the study had all the makings of a Quicksand Story, so it made dramatic headlines.

Recently I turned on the car radio and inadvertently encountered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of Quicksand Stories – the place they all eventually end up: The John Tesh radio show.  Under the banner of “Intelligence for your Life,” John dispenses news, wisdom, and advice, all with his calm careful yes-the-world-is-a-dangerous-place- but-I’m-here-to-tell-you-how-to-protect-yourself spin.

So reliable is John at delivering Quicksand Stories, that it’s become a family game to count them as he reels them off.  We can usually get 4 or 5 in a 15 minute car ride.

Quoting from his website now, grabbing the first article in each of several sections:

  • Pets: “Unrestrained Dogs Are Causing Thousands of Crashes a Year”
  • Diet & Fitness: “Want to know what happens 30 minutes after eating French fries? Possible heart damage.”
  • Tech: “Embarrassing photos or negative information about you posted online could cost you everything from your job to a new relationship.”

Maybe those are true, but, let’s parse the first one just for fun:

April 15, 2011 | Unrestrained Dogs Are Causing Thousands of Crashes a Year

Dog owners: If you think of your dog as your baby, then it’s time to treat them like one in your car. That’s the conclusion of a new report we found in the Associated Press. Experts say unrestrained pets are one of the leading causes of distracted driving in North America, and they’re a likely cause in tens of thousands of crashes each year.

First, what is the source of the data?  He doesn’t link to it, but I found the original AP story, (from the Denver Post) dated January 23, 2011.  Thus begins a virtual paper trail of near-identical articles going back five months to  the August 18, 2010 Denver Business Journal.  That article cites AAA Colorado.

Apparently AAA Colorado and Kurgo Pet Travel Products conducted a survey of 1,000 dog owners who have driven with their dog in the past 12 months. From the survey, they concluded that:

“An overwhelming 80 percent of survey respondents stated that they have driven with their pets. However, only 17 percent use any form of pet restraint system when driving with their dog.”

Read that again:  That is 80% of dog owners who have been chosen because they have driven with their dogs in the past 12 months admitted in the survey to… driving with their dogs.

So the shock isn’t that it’s 80%. It’s that it’s not 100%.

AAA Colorado also found:   31% of respondents admit to being distracted by their dog while driving, and 59% have participated in at least one distracting behavior while driving with their dog. 55% have patted their dog while driving, and 21% allowed their dog to sit in their lap. Others admitted to giving food and water to their dog and playing with their dog while driving.

So how many accidents did those pets cause? According to AAA Colorado:

“These behaviors can increase the risk of a crash. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that looking away from the road for only two seconds doubles your risk of being in a crash.”

So, there is the implied logic: dogs are a distraction, distractions cause accidents, therefore dogs cause accidents. But there is no evidence that that is true.

Tesh’s article (admittedly just the most recent in a long string of similar articles taken from this survey), however, uses declarative sentences:

  • “Dogs Are Causing Thousands of Crashes..”
  • “..unrestrained pets are one of the leading causes of distracted driving”
  • “.. a likely cause in tens of thousands of crashes …”

Except for the articles following the AAA press release, I have found not one mention of dogs being a common distraction. Yes, there are individual stories about accidents being caused by dogs in the car. Yes, I agree, it’s a really bad idea to have your dog loose in the car. They probably are a huge distraction and could well lead to an accident.

But, until someone shows me the numbers, this is just another Quicksand Story.



Distraction.gov : Official US Government Website for Distracted Driving

NHTSA : National Highway Transportation Safety Administration

Khaldoun, A., E. Eiser, G. H. Wegdam, and Daniel Bonn. “Rheology: Liquefaction of quicksand under stress.” Nature 437, no. 7059 (print 2005): 635.  doi:10.1038/437635a

Emerging Infectious Diseases • www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 17, No. 2, February 2011

Chomel BB, Sun B. Zoonoses in the bedroom. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2011 Feb [cited 2011 Apr 12]. http://www.cdc.gov/EID/content/17/2/167.htm    DOI: 10.3201/eid1702.101070