Actual vs. Perceived Danger - Danger Week


By Molly Freeman

How many times have you read or heard about a tragedy in the news, something that rarely happens, and thought it could happen to you? Suddenly you’re afraid of something you’ve never even thought could be dangerous. When you read a story about a death on the subway, you vow to take your bicycle next time. When there’s a plane crash, you vow to take the train. When another cruise ship is stranded at sea or runs aground, you vow to take a road trip vacation instead.

However, the chance of dying on the subway, getting into a plane crash, or being on the next Carnival Triumph is not very high. Unfortunately that doesn’t stop a lot of people from worrying, or perceiving the danger to be more than it is.

Photo by Joel Kramer.

In 2010, Susanna Hertrich created a series on this very subject titled Risk. Her pieces compared the actual hazard of certain causes of death like plane crashes and car accidents to the public outrage. About her piece “Risk Perception and Actual Hazards,” she says it “reveals the discrepancy between the scenarios that we fear and those that are seriously harmful to us.”

While terrorist attacks, plane crashes, and electrosmog have high levels of public outrage, they cause very few deaths. In contrast, heat, cancer, and car crashes cause many more deaths per year, but are not recognized by the public with the same level of outrage and fear.

To further prove this point, another of Hertrich’s Risk pieces, “Comparison of Fatalities,” compares deaths in 2000 caused by terrorist attacks and climate change. The numbers of deaths are 423 and 150,000 respectively. In the caption of the piece, she states that the statistics are based on numbers published by Reuters and the U.S. State Department.

Recently, many people have been talking about the dangerousness of cruise ships in light of the Carnival Triumph’s recent fire that left its 4,200 passengers stranded off the coast of Mexico. Though no one died on the Triumph, the same cannot be said for the Costa Concordia, which made headlines last year when the ship partially sank off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.

Other forms of transportation are far more dangerous than cruise ships. Though many people fear flying, according to David Ropeik in his PBS NOVA column, “The annual risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about 1 in 11 million.” The chances of dying in a car crash are much more likely: 1 in 5,000.

However, these types of accidents are not the top killer in America. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accidents place fifth in the list of top ten causes of death in 2010. Ahead of accidents are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke.

If you compare the CDC’s numbers on cancer to David Ropeik’s stats on plane crashes—which he retrieved from the U.S. Department of Transportation—more than 500,000 people die of cancer and an average of 138 die from plane crashes each year.

Discrepancies like these are touched on widely in Susanna Hertrich’s Risk series, but why is there a disconnect between what people are afraid of and what is actually dangerous?

In his book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, security technologist Bruce Schneier talked about perceived versus actual danger: “People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks. They worry more about earthquakes than they do about slipping on the bathroom floor.”

Schneier also wrote that people underestimate the risks they take willingly and overestimate the risk in a situation they do not control. This could explain why people fear being on planes more than in cars; although car accidents kill more per year, people feel safer because they are in control, rather than on a plane where they have no control.

What people are talking about—specifically news—also has an impact on what we fear. “People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny,” wrote Schneier.

With all the cruise ship disasters in the last year, it’s not surprising that people might be afraid to book their next vacation on a Carnival ship, especially when CNN documents the “tragic final moments” of the passengers that died in the Costa Concordia accident. According to Schneier, people are much more likely to fear personified dangers, like that of these passengers, than a statistic, like the number of people killed by cancer.

Don’t let your fears get in the way of your life. The next time you’re worried about buying those cheap cruise tickets because of what happened to the Carnival Triumph or the Costa Concordia, remind yourself that there is a lot less actual danger than perceived danger. The same goes for taking a plane rather than a train. However, cycling instead of taking the subway might be better in the long run (it’s good for your heart and lifespan.)