Obsessing About Risk and Crashes

by Lane Wallace

Another note on our attitudes about risk ...

Jane Brody wrote an excellent column in the Science Times yesterday about the "slippery slope from fear to panic." She quotes two British researchers, whose recently-published book Panicology looks at how ridiculously irrational we humans are when it comes to the risks we fear.

We panicked about bird flu, for example, even though the 2005/2006 bird flu "epidemic" killed fewer than 300 people worldwide ... while ignoring the fact that normal, everyday flu kills 30,000 Americans every year. We're terrified of the risks of airline travel, even though every statistic out there shows it's about the safest form of transport there is. Seven times safer than driving your car. Far safer than taking a shower in your bathtub. (Unintentionally underlining the article's point was a separate column, right next to it on the printed page (an argument for the value of a printed newspaper), about how many people a day end up in emergency rooms because of accidents with their pets. Answer: 235 ... or five times the number injured by accidental gunshots.)

This irrationality undoubtedly also helps explain the wide coverage the crash investigation of the Dash-8 regional airliner that went down in Buffalo, NY in February received last week.

Fifty people died in that accident. That's a terrible tragedy. And as a pilot and writer who's covered aviation for 20 years, I'm intimately aware of the risk factors, and even the training issues, that exist in both private and commercial aviation. So not to discount any of that.

But we all pass horrible car accidents, every day, without obsessing about driver training, even though the very next car hit could be ours. And consider: there have only been 5 airline accidents--regional or major--involving any passenger fatalities in the past 7 years. In those accidents, a total of 140 passengers died. This despite the fact that, according to an NTSB report, the airlines carried a total of 743 million passengers a total of 8.2 billion miles in 2005 alone. Roughly speaking, that puts a person's chance of being in a fatal accident aboard a regional or major airline at somewhere between .000019 and .000027 percent. (Check it out for yourself here

Which is to say, while improvements can always be made, and there are certainly important issues that need to be addressed in our pilot training system ... in terms of the risk to the general public, we're talking about improving the final 1% of risk in a field that's already pretty darn reliable. Compare that to any other form of transportation, including the high-risk activity of crossing the street, and it pales. But you'd never know that from the vast amount of print and television coverage given to the Buffalo crash and investigation. (As for the risk of being killed on the ground by an airplane (9/11 attacks aside) ... the average number of fatalities in that category ranges somewhere from 2 to 5 a year.)

So why is it that we devote so much time, media coverage, and worry to airplane crashes, but, as Brody points out, still continue to drive or cross streets while talking on our cell phones--an activity far more likely to get us injured or killed?

In short, according to Panicology (and this piece, quoted before, by security expert Bruce Schneier), because we're irrational. Not to mention control freaks, with an amazing ability to delude ourselves about risk if we really want something (e.g. cigarettes or an overabundance of fried foods), while obsessing about risks that: a) we feel we can't control, b) are remote or exotic, or c) we don't really understand.

We probably can't change our basic inclinations in these areas. But knowing how irrational our fears can be might help us maintain some important perspective on the subject. As one of Panicology's authors points out, "there are serious emotional, social, and economic costs to panic." And, as Brody adds, "worry itself is a risk."