Chance of being killed in car crash

For a post this week, I’ve selected the article that ran in the Tomah Journal on Thursday, Oct 22, 2015.


What are my chances of being killed in a car accident?


They’re actually pretty good, about 1 in 9,000! This question brings up the fascinating topic of risk and how people perceive risk. Driving our cars is the single most dangerous activity we do on a regular basis. It’s not because you are a bad driver. It’s because of all those fools that are driving drunk, or distracted by texting or talking on cell phones, or eating while driving, or spaced out on drugs, or speeding, or dead (no pun intended) tired and fall asleep at the wheel.

A disclaimer here; I have scarfed down a few Chicken McNuggets, with honey, while tooling down the highway.

Calculating risks is fairly straight forward. Divide the number of people who ride in cars, which is nearly the population of the United States, around 300 million, by the number of people who are killed every year, about 33,000, and you come up with about 1 in 9,000 each year. It is about 1 in 80 over a lifetime. There is a 1 in 20 chance you and I will be in a car accident involving serious injury, over a lifetime.

Air travel is far safer than driving in a car, but our view and feelings about the risks are skewed. A plane crash is terrifying to contemplate, having a “high-dread” factor, if you wish. Remember the middle of July, 2014. In a little over one week, a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over the Ukraine, a Trans Asia plane crashed on landing off Taiwan, and an Air Algerie plane was lost in a dust storm in Mali. Three commercial plane accidents with a total loss of 462 passengers and crew, a tragedy that convinced many that they would never get on one of those things! During that same week, 735 people died in car crashes in the United States. Those car accident deaths make the local and statewide news, but do not garner the national spotlight.

The 9/11 attacks killed about 3,000 people, and we dutifully decry and mourn their loss. That same number, 3000, are lost in car accidents every month in the United States. At times we tend to go with our heart instead of our head. After the 9/11 terrorists attacks, many people decided to drive instead of fly. There was a spike in traffic deaths.

Cornell University did a careful study of the phenomena, and found that there were an additional 344 driving deaths per month in late 2001. The numbers decreased over time, of course, but the researchers attributed a total of 2,170 driving deaths due to the 9/11 attack. That is about 70 percent of the 3,000 directly killed in the attacks.

Life is a series of calculated risks. Most everything we do has some risk to it. And there is lots of just pure luck involved.

Sometimes our fears are not very rational. When those laser scanning devices, used to read the UPC label, were put in checkout counters in supermarkets in the 1970s, the word “laser” was never used by store owners and advertisers. Laser implied death rays, and who wants to die by getting zapped by a laser in the grocery store.

When those Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machines were introduced in 1977, people were reluctant to have anything to do with them and avoided them like the plague. They didn’t want to be associated with anything “nuclear”. So the profession changed the name to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and this new kind of X-ray machine caught on.

Risks in any human endeavor can be reduced, but not down to zero risk. You can decrease the risk of getting killed in a car accident by never getting into a car. But people have been killed when a car slams into the house or cafe. You can lessen your risk of getting killed in an airplane by not flying in an airliner. But aircraft have slammed into houses and killed people. Risks can’t be minimized to zero.

We accept certain risks. There are over 5,000 kids admitted to hospitals (very few deaths)  every year when they swallow coins. We could make coins so large that kids couldn’t put them in their mouth. But that destroys the utilitarian value of carrying coins in our pocket.

What are the top accident killers of people following traffic accidents? Falls are number two, with a 1 in 14,000 chance of dying. Fires are number three, with a 1 in 33,000 odds, drowning is number 4 with 1 in 43,000 chance of parting this Earth.

When we get down to number 9, a lightning strike, with a 1 in 1,700,00 chance, people’s perception is interesting. The victim is out fishing, or playing golf, or standing under a tree on a hill, or carrying an umbrella in a lightning and rainstorm.  We don’t think or say that they deserved to get struck by lightning, but the feeling is they should have been more prudent. The odds of getting killed by lightning are so small, we tend to put some culpability on the one that got struck.

Fortunately, most people don’t dwell on thoughts of demise, death, and car accident fatalities. We just live our life and go about our activities and we expect nothing dreadful to occur. Teenagers definitely think that way. For teens, bad things happen to other people. And it is probably for the best, having a youthful optimism and bright future ahead.   Car crash

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