Magazine

Perspective | Magazine

Why do we fear plane crashes when the ride to the airport is more dangerous?

Our sense of danger needs a reality check.

Adobe stock

The day after a Southwest jet engine exploded, killing one, I’m in a Lyft heading toward Logan Airport, bound for my own trip on the same airline.

“Have a safe flight,” the driver tells me as he drops me at Terminal A. His well-meaning words shake me. I feel a hard knot of panic in my chest.

On board, I initially choose an aisle seat. On that ill-fated plane, it was a woman sitting by the window who was nearly sucked out and later died. But then, in some small show of courage, I move over to the window. I soon regret the decision. In the air, my knuckles are white as I grip my chair, looking out nervously at the jet engine just behind me. As we roll to a stop on the runway, I send a relieved text to friends: “Landed!”

Advertisement

In truth, my drive from my home to the airport was more dangerous than my flight. In 2016, more than 40,000 people died on American roads. Meanwhile, the Southwest death was the first in nine years in American skies. The chance of being killed in the air is almost infinitesimally small. But the odds of dying in a car: Much higher.

The same analysis holds true for school shootings. The February high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead and caused a nationwide furor as panicked parents everywhere worried for their own children’s safety. Frightened teens organized walkouts and protests and sparked a new political movement while adults argued about solutions like hardening entrances and arming teachers at school districts around the country.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Yet the reality is that school shootings are extraordinarily rare — and, our perceptions notwithstanding, have actually been declining since the 1990s, according to James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University, who has analyzed school shootings nationwide. This “is not an epidemic,” Fox told the university’s news service. Though parents may worry about a shooter in the classroom, the greater danger likely lies in the bus ride to and from school.

Why are we so scared of dangers that are rare — and not sufficiently worried about the ones that are commonplace? It turns out we human beings are pretty poor at judging risks and rewards. We extrapolate from anecdotes: One burglary is a crime, two a crime wave. We see something in the news and assume there’s an epidemic. We believe in luck, streaks, and baseball players being “due” for a hit. We let emotion rather than data drive our thinking.

Thus we fear a nuclear power plant far more than one that is coal-fired (even though air pollution generated by coal poses the greater hazard). We bar refugees from our shores, frightened of terrorism, even though the risk of being killed by a refugee terrorist is hundreds of times less likely than getting killed by lightning. We think children walking alone are sure to be abducted by strangers when that’s rarely the case. Unintentional falls kill almost 35,000 annually, but how many of us actually hold a railing as we go down stairs?

Advertisement

There is, arguably, a benefit to these cognitive lapses. Plane crashes receive so much attention that the industry has learned to deal with them swiftly. If people started to dread flying, then the business would collapse. And so, every crash is dealt with quickly, its causes probed by federal regulators and — once determined — fixes put in place. It’s that process that has made air travel ever more safe. Years ago, for example, downburst wind shear was the leading cause of plane crashes. So engineers came up with wind shear detection systems and, quickly, the problem went away. One can be sure that, whatever the cause of Southwest’s engine failure, it too will be addressed.

Reducing the risk of a school shooting is far more complicated, but some proposed solutions could help. Administrators and staff could put in place protocols that would identify signs a student might resort to violence. And lawmakers could implement simple new regulations to reduce the number of firearms in potentially dangerous hands, such as raising the age of gun ownership or instituting more stringent requirements to obtain a gun license.

Yet, the problem with our focus on the prominent but rare is that we sometimes ignore the ordinary. How many lives might we save if we devoted as many resources toward thwarting car crashes as we do to airplane accidents? How much violence could be prevented if we paid as much attention to underreported and frequently ignored shooting deaths in poor, often black neighborhoods as we do to mass shootings in suburban schools? Life is full of danger. But sometimes we look for it in the wrong places.

Tom Keane is a Boston-based freelance writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.