Plane crashes, probability, and fear


Jet lost in Malaysia’s first major aviation disaster of 2014 [photo by russavia]

Let’s start with the most recent downed commercial flights first: on July 24th, an Air Algerie flight out of Burkina Faso bound for Algiers crashed during a rainstorm, killing 116 passengers and crew. On July 22nd, the crash of a TransAsia flight in Taiwan killed 48 people. On July 17th a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people.

In March of this year a Malaysia Airlines flight out of Kuala Lumpur (painful coincidence for both the company and the airport) heading for Beijing disappeared from radar. Eventually it was determined that all 239 people must have died. Despite the most expensive search effort ever launched, to date no crash site has been found. The Indian Ocean is a very big place.

On a smaller scale regarding numbers but not tragedy, in February, a Nepal Airlines flight traveling within Nepal, from Pokhara to Jumla, crashed into a hillside, killing the 18 people aboard.

Taken together, the death toll from these five flights in 2014 is 719 people.


July 23: 40 hearses carry victims of the latest downed Malaysia Airlines flight [Wikimedia, photo by Mauritz90]

I can’t help but feel fortunate that the dozen airplanes I’ve flown on so far in 2014 have all come down peacefully as planned. And I’m glad that I don’t have any more flights scheduled for the near future.

But I also recognize that you and I are probably scared of the wrong things, and for the wrong reasons.

If we were to do a quick survey of anyone who has watched or listened to any news reports since rockets shot down the plane over Ukraine, we’d be certain to hear people exaggerating the likelihood of dying in a plane crash. If we lend our attention to the talking heads given the responsibility of calming us all down about the dangers of air travel, we’ll have our heads filled with probability numbers (odds are 1 in 11 million that you’ll die in a plane crash), and comparisons (you’re more likely to be struck by lightning 7 times than die in a plane crash, says one source; cars are 8 times more dangerous, says another). Overall, we’ll be reassured that “air travel is very safe.”

Despite being handed hard numbers, comparisons and probabilities, our gut feelings don’t seem to line up with what we’re told. Why is that?

I found some helpful ideas in this Nova article. The author points out that when we feel in control, we’re less fearful; despite the dangers of car travel, we’ve got our own hands on the steering wheel, which gives us a sense that we can beat the odds. In a plane, no matter how conscientiously we fasten our seat belts and make note of our nearest exit, we feel that we simply have no control.

Heightened awareness of risk makes us more fearful. Recent news coverage of the latest plane crashes, especially when accompanied by vivid photos or video, has us all thinking more about them.

We also tend to be more afraid of risks that are catastrophic, where lots of people die at one time, in one place. The Nova article sites the figure that in the United States 2,200 people die of heart disease each day, more than three times the number killed worldwide in plane crashes over the past six months. It’s just that those dying of heart disease are dying one at a time, in hospital rooms and care facilities, spread out around the country.

Then there’s what the author simply calls dread: the more suffering associated with a death, the more we will fear it. However jaded an air traveler you are, there have likely been times, probably during “unexpected turbulence,” when you’ve imagined what it would be like if the worst were to happen.

The National Safety Council has created an infographic that attempts to help us get a feel for the odds of dying from a number of different causes. The top probability, dying from any cause, is 1 chance in 1–we’re all going to do that eventually. After that, there’s more variability. You’ll see that they give higher odds of dying in an air disaster than I’ve heard elsewhere. I guess we can chalk that up to methodological differences, user error (me), or to Mark Twain’s statement about lies, damn lies and statistics.

9780809033591It’s been a very long time since I studied statistics in a formal setting. I did recently read The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics by Grady Klein and Alan Dabney, but I came away reminded that we very often play fast and loose with statistics in a way that doesn’t necessarily further our understanding. While there are many things that statistics can tell you, they’re always more successful predicting what’s going to happen in general to a group than what’s going to happen specifically to an individual. I may not understand probability as well as I would like to, but to my way of thinking, it’s extremely probable that the families and friends of the 719 passengers killed so far this year have been affected in ways that defy capture by numbers or graphs. Their loved ones are 100% gone, whatever the odds of that happening might have been.

I don’t think that fact means that we ought to forswear all future air travel. I do think it can invite us to ponder about the possibility of the unforeseen in the future we each face. We might consider whether the possibility that we could die tomorrow can have a positive influence on how we’re spending today.

Pokhara, origin of the Nepalese flight [wikimedia; Arzun]

Pokhara, origin of the Nepalese flight [wikimedia; Arzun]

5 thoughts on “Plane crashes, probability, and fear

  1. Well done, Lori. I forwarded this to Bill, since he is in the business of developing the radar and other systems which prevent plane crashes. Best, Marian

  2. Interesting that dread and fear about flying are due to the fact that we are so totally out of control when we fly, our lives are in the hands of those 2 or 3 pilots up in the cockpit. That’s precisely why I am relaxed! I figure if we’re gonna crash, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change anything. I suppose if we were careening low toward a mountain or something, I’d be stricken with fear just like the next person. But you are right, these tragedies are so rare. I really feel bad for their families, left with few answers to solace them – if answers could even do that.

    • I wonder how I’d feel if things looked grim during a flight–and I hope I never get a chance to get data on that very rhetorical question….

  3. Pingback: Lori Notes turns 100 | Lori Notes

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