Risks of Death – A Little Perspective2 min read
Humans are an interesting species. We have brains with the most cognitive powers available to any known species, yet we fall into traps that cause us to make the same mistakes repeatedly. We tend to overreact to things, and we love to make connections and attach causality to unrelated events. I read a great article recently where I learned the terms patternicity and agenticity. It was in The Scientific American and is a little far afield of my main topic here, but it goes down a similar path. Humans want to understand and be able to explain events and their causes.
In this post, I am tackling one small aspect – namely what is the relative risk of death from different accidental causes. Last week’s tragic train crash in Washington, D.C. has naturally prompted a reevaluation of mass transportation safety. Many bloggers have posted sentiments that they will “go back to driving to work,” or “this was the last straw for mass transit,” and “they want to be in control.” Folks, this is not a rational reaction.
I took a look at a CDC table of almost 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. in 2005. The good news, if you can call it that, is that most deaths are caused from health conditions, disease and disorders, which accounted for almost 93% of the total. It is true that accidents account for the majority of the remaining 7%, but there were fewer transportation-related accidents than not, and if you exclude deaths from car accidents, you are down to 0.13% of the grand total. Here are a few accidents that each accounted for more than all of the non-car transportation deaths put together (i.e. trains, plains, boats, bicycles): drowning, exposure to smoke, fire and flames and poisoning (far more common than you might think).
The National Safety Council broke this data out even further in a nice table with the odds of dying calculated. From this data, you learn you are more than 442 times more likely to die in a car than on a train. Airplanes look relatively dangerous compared to trains, but not if you limit yourself to commercial flights. Other deadly accidents more common than train crashes include earthquakes, lightning and insect stings (wasps, hornets and bees). Even contact with hot tap water was more dangerous than riding in a train.
Of course, this data is for the U.S. and only for the year 2005. Stay tuned for a follow up to our recent post on dangerous roadways outside the US because even though the odds of an accident occurring may be low, it is always wise to take sensible precautions to lower them even further.