A Touch Of Perspective On Accidents
Aero-Views by Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien
We get a lot of weird press releases at Aero-News. Sometimes we
get the skinny on new planes, or new technology, or industry movers
and shakers who are moving (usually up: no one issues a press
release when he's booted downstairs) and shaking.
And then there's the oddball stuff. As near as I can figure it,
a lot of aviation-world PR people have wider PR practices, and they
send us everything, including the kitchen sink. Just last week we
got, among others:
- Something on Adventure Diving Safaris. Sorry, wrong
- Something about the earnings of Starwood Hotels and
- Something on how enthusiastic American drivers were for Big
Brother traffic monitoring.
- Something about electronic surveillance of speeds of trains.
(Trains? They still have them? Who knew?)
- Something about an autonomous vehicle competition in the
desert. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'air.
- PR from The National Safety Commission Comparing July 4th
traffic deaths to shark attacks.
Now, most of these press releases go right into File 13, but I
got thinking about the last one. The point of the press release was
reasonable, and it was, reasonably, extensible to our trade.
The media adore the sensational, shocking -- and therefore, rare
-- story. The politicians react to the media. Most of them care
little about their constituents, but read the Washington Post with
So we can look forward to a variety of pronouncements about
shark attacks and the necessity to DO SOMETHING about sharks.
Unfortunately, sharks do not read the Washington Post and do not
know that they are not supposed to eat humans. To them, we probably
taste like chicken. And the sharks were here first; the sea is
theirs and to some extent we, whose element the sea is not, venture
there at our peril. Enter the ocean, and you enter the food
Now, if you were to read the papers, you would think that sharks
eating people was a problem of alarming frequency... and you would
demand that the politicians DO SOMETHING. But, until the sharks
submit to lawfully constituted authority, an unlikely prospect for
something with the primitive brain of those ancient fish, nothing a
politican does can effect much.
In the meantime, Ken
Underwood, President of the NSC, pointed out that some 600
Americans perish in motor accidents on the 4th of July (on the
"The number of crash fatalities that will occur on July 4th is
more than all of the confirmed, unprovoked shark attack fatalities
ever recorded worldwide," Underwood said.
So the parallel with the air becomes clear... as does the
parallel with air accidents. People have been lulled by a very,
very safe society into the expectation -- the FALSE expectation --
that life will be perfectly safe. That airliners will never crash,
and lightplanes will never slam into the ground, depriving good
people of life.
Zero accidents is a good philosophical, abstract goal, as long
as people understand that it is not going to be achieved forever
and endlessly. As a practical, physical goal, it's a chimera. There
will always be accidents, and the rarer they are -- the safer we
are -- the more hysterically they'll be reported.
Let's consider the numbers and the press, in perspective.
- The 600 lost on the highways in that one day is around 1/3 of
our losses in Iraq, and three times our losses in Afghanistan (most
of whom are noncombat losses such as... traffic accidents). The
press is very worked up about the war casualties, which add up to
one bad day for the Army Air Forces over Europe in WWII -- and the
AAF had lots of bad days.
- Our total highway death toll equals about 14 9/11s a year.
- The 600 lost on the highways on the typical July 4th for the
last five years has been more than the total fatalities in GA
accidents in each of those years (source: AOPA Air Safety
Foundation's Nall Report).
But pick up the paper on Monday or Tuesday, and the motor
vehicle fatalities will be buried way, way, way back in the depths
of the paper, unless someone wealthy or famous is unfortunate
enough to have died in this way. While, if there is a plane crash,
it will be trumpeted from the heavens -- even if all involved walk
away. (This has already been borne out locally, where radio and TV
are saturating the air with a story of a fatal ultralight crash,
but the only one of dozens of serious or fatal car crashes to make
the news in this area is a freak accident wherein an alleged drunk,
going the wrong way on a divided highway, put several young women
and their cab driver into intensive care).
In effect, what is happening is that a relatively scarce event,
an airplane crash, gets more press play than a relatively routine
one, a car crash, and since people (God help us) form opinions
based on what they read in the papers or see on TV, the average Joe
KNOWS that flying is more dangerous than driving. (After all, you
can put the words "plane crash" into Google News and there's
something there every day).
In this case, accurate, but sensationalistically-determined,
reporting causes people to form inaccurate ideas, even ones at
complete odds with the fact. It's based on news judgment
determining what is and isn't reported, which is itself driven by
the constant need for novelty on the broadcast stations.
Because of those inaccurate ideas, politicians gear up to DO
SOMETHING that may have a directly counterproductive effect. And
yet, everybody in the whole system -- the news people, the
citizenry, the politicians -- basically means well.
But these misperceptions have very real consequences. People
decide to drive 1500 miles to Disneyland instead of taking an
airline, thereby exposing themselves to inordinately higher risks.
You are more likely to die in your bathtub than an airliner, for
crying out loud (not that I am suggesting that you abandon personal
I wish that we taught the scientific method, understanding
logical fallacies, and fundamental statistics, in high school. I
wish that we could get across to people that risk in life is never
zero. I wish people would worry more about the drunks in the road
than the sharks in the sea. I wish people would understand that a
1,500 pound airplane lost in the sky is not a real threat, but an
imam preaching sermons of death and martyrdom on Friday is.
Remember, the greatest risk is overeating, followed by driving,
so I hope you all go flying. Me, I'm driving... to the airport.
For one thing, it's a good place to be safe from the