Death by Numbers

OK, you already know this, but still fascinating to see the numbers spelled out. Your chances of dying in a plane crash are approximately 1 in 20,000; chances of dying in an auto accident roughly 1 in 100. And yet the thought of going down in a burning plane perpetually occupies a special fear-spot in the public imagination.

As our media wrings its hands relentlessly over the 11 victims of Minnesota’s Interstate 35 bridge collapse and the nine missing Utah coal miners, 42,000 people will die of cancer this month. “Meanwhile, 3,000 people, mostly sub-Saharan African children, will die today of malaria with nary an Associated Press story to spread the news.”

We care, but the diseases and the car wrecks that kill thousands of us every day are so common that they’re the opposite of news. They’re also usually too frightening to contemplate. Freak accidents, in contrast, are freakishly comforting.

3 Replies to “Death by Numbers”

  1. During Lent last Spring, I did a presentation at my church about the effects of HIV/Malaria/TB and other diseases as part of a series we had on the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.

    Had to do some research on the topic, of course, to produce my material – and it shocked me to the core. The room got pretty quiet towards the end…

  2. The car/plane statistics are per journey. If it’s per mile travelled, flying comes out more dangerous than driving. Plus of course, when in a plane you have no personal control, the pilot does it all, whereas in a car you can choose whether be a boy racer or a careful driver. Your own decision-making affects your likelihood of dying.

    So that’s per mile travelled. I’m not sure how it comes out if you do it per hour spent travelling, which might be the most logical way of comparing transportation modes.

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