September 13, 1994
"An Air Crash is the Least of Your Worries"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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THE WAY Americans and the news media react to airplane crashes says something
interesting about how society defines what risks of death are largely acceptable,
and what risks are "news."
The crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburgh was a front page story because
of the horrible loss of 132 lives. But about 2.2 million Americans die each year.
The two largest causes are cardiovascular diseases and cancer, which between them
cause two-thirds of these deaths. In 1991, accidents led to 92,000 deaths, about
4 percent of the total.
Of the accidental deaths, about half (that is, 2 percent of the total) are
motor vehicle accidents. Another 12,000 are accidental falls; 4,000 are fire accidents;
3,000 more are from complications due to medical procedures.
The number of deaths from "air and space transport accidents" has
been less than 1,000 per year in the 1990s. This is about one-twentieth of 1 percent
of all deaths in a year. Of course, many of these deaths occur in small planes,
not commercial airliners.
In short, while the grim disaster of 132 deaths in the USAir crash gets national
headlines, as a society we accept far larger numbers of deaths without much notice.
Even though nearly three times as many Americans die from "inhalation and
ingestion of objects" as from air crashes, when is the last time you saw
several days of headlines newspaper stories on choking to death?
On an average day, about 130 people die in car crashes -- the equivalent of
this crash happens every day on American roads. Given the prevailing estimates
of how cigarette smoking contributes to all those cardiovascular and cancer deaths,
newspapers could run a headline every day reporting that 1,000 people died yesterday
from smoking-related illnesses.
One academic study, done a few years ago, looked at how the front page of the
New York Times covered certain mortality risks for a year, and then calculated
the number of stories about each risk divided by the number of actual deaths.
For deaths on commercial jets, there was an average of 138 stories for every 1,000
deaths. For deaths by homicide and AIDS, there were about two stories for every
1,000 deaths. And for deaths from cancer, suicide, or automobile accidents, there
was about one-twentieth of a story for every 1,000 deaths.
If it is not the number of deaths, then what is it about an airline crash that
so affects the American psyche?
A plane crash is a single event, not a string of ongoing events like the deaths
in auto accidents or from cancer. The news media tends to treat single events
as a salient headline "story," and to treat ongoing causes of death
like background noise that get occasional space on slow news days.
The entertainment industry clearly recognizes a fascination with airplane crashes.
Movies on the subject have become a stereotype: the hijackers, the pilots with
sudden heart attacks, the mechanical failures, the flight attendants who are suddenly
able to land a jumbo jet. By contrast, there aren't a whole lot of movies about
choking to death, fatal car crashes, or dying from smoking-related causes.
The entertainment and news media have capitalized on fear of flying, and also
helped to nourish such a fear. Commercial flights are extraordinarily safer than
auto travel, and have been getting safer for decades. But I can think of a handful
of well-educated friends who are deeply frightened of plane travel, yet they drive
without a second thought.
A final reason for the fascination with airplane crashes, I think, is that
the victims are as helpless and as blameless as innocent bystanders in a drive-by
shooting. When heavy drinkers or smokers or unsafe drivers meet an untimely end,
the rest of us can feel, even through our mourning, a certain moralistic satisfaction,
and a feeling that it won't happen to us. But an airplane crash reminds one that
bad things do happen to good people, and to average people, and to all of us.
Instead of worrying about dramatic images of plunging to a fiery death in a
plane crash, Americans should spend more time worrying about how much they exercise,
what they eat, not driving when they drink, and not smoking. Most of us die earlier
than we need to, from causes we could have done something about.
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