That line comes from Dan Gardner’s Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, a wonderfully provocative, engagingly written study of the psychology of risk. It’s not available quite yet in the U.S., but you can preorder the book from Amazon in the U.S. (where it has a slightly different title and cover).
One of the already shopworn canards of election season here in the U.S. is the refrain “we live in a dangerous world,” or “we live in dangerous times.” No one ever goes to make the point that underlies Gardner’s book: Just how less dangerous the world now is (for those in the developed world, at least). A baby born in England in 1900, he notes, could expect to live to an average of 46 years. Her great-grandchild, born in 1980, would see an average life expectancy of 74 years. The great-great grandchild, born in 1980 — almost eight decades of expected life. While on the subject of England, he notes the murder rate in the Middle Ages there was fourteen times what it is now.
I could go on quoting interesting things from the book, but as one chapter of Traffic focuses on risk on the road, I found one of Gardner’s footnotes particularly interesting. Describing a media panic that emerged in the wake of two tragic incidents in Canada in which drivers were killed by truck tires that had come loose on the highway, he writes: “Reporting proliferated and even trivial incidents in which no one was endangered made the news. It seemed the roads were in chaos. New safety regulations were passed and, just as quickly as it appeared, the crisis vanished.”
But what was the result of all the attention? Was a real risk brought to a close, or did a remote risk continue to strike more or less at random? The number of incidents, and fatalities, notes Gardner, more or less fluctuated up and down, following no real pattern (save perhaps the regression to the mean), with no fatalities one year, two the next. As he writes, “before the panic, tires came loose occasionally and there was a tiny risk to motorists. The same was true during the crisis and afterward. All that changed was appearance and disappearance of the feedback loop.” For a while, it seemed as if there was a “flying truck tire” epidemic on Canadian roads, but it was merely an artifact of disproportionate media attention — attention which may have been better paid to the larger sources of risk, like alcohol and speed.
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