November 12, 2008

Dan Gardner on fear

Posted in Behaviour, Society at 06:35 by graham

In the prologue to The Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner (published as ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’ in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada), which I have just started reading, as he talks about the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States:

It was an unreal, frightening time, and it was predictable that people would flee the airports. Perhaps surprisingly, though, they didn’t start digging backyard bomb shelters. Instead, most went to work and carried on living. They just didn’t fly. They drove instead.

Politicians worried what the mass exodus of Americans from planes to cars would do to the airline industry, so a bailout was put together. But no one talked about the surge in car travel. Why would they? It was trivia. There were deadly threats to worry about.

But what no politician mentioned is that air travel is safer than driving. Dramatically safer – so much so that the most dangerous part of a typical commercial flight is the drive to the airport.

The safety gap is so large, in fact, that planes would still be safer than cars if the threat of terrorism were unimaginably worse than it actually is: An American professor calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would a have only a 1-in-135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking – a trivial risk compared to the annual 1-in-6,000 odds of being killed in a car crash.

Risk analysts knew all about this safety gap. And they understood what a large-scale shift from planes to cars would mean. It’s simple mathematics. If one person gives up the relative safety of flying and drives instead, it’s not a big deal. He will almost certainly survive. But if millions of people take the same risk, it is just as likely that some of them will lose the gamble and their lives.

But car crashes aren’t like terrorist hijackings. They aren’t covered live on CNN. They aren’t discussed endlessly by pundits. They don’t inspire Hollywood movies and television shows. They aren’t fodder for campaigning politicians. And so in the months following the September 11 attacks, as politicians and journalists worried endlessly about terrorism, anthrax, and dirty bombs, people who fled the airports to be safe from terrorism crashed and bled to death on America’s roads. And nobody noticed.

This is exactly why I setup the Rational Fear website. This looks to be a very good book.

The comparison of the risks of air versus car travel (‘An American professor’) comes from an op-ed piece by Michael Rothschild, emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, first published in the Washington Post on November 25th 2001. Thanks to Dan Gardner for providing me with the reference.

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