- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

Back in 1979, people all over the world were gripped with fear at the news that a space station called Skylab was about to fall out of orbit, hurtle through the atmosphere, and crash into Earth, where it might squash someone. Experts insisted that the risk was minimal, but the anxiety didn't subside.

So one entrepreneur offered a novel protective device: hats made of aluminum foil. His sales pitch was that though your chances of being hit by Skylab were low, your chances of being hit by Skylab while wearing an aluminum-foil hat were even lower.

Right now we could use some aluminum-foil hats to allay the widespread fear of being killed by terrorist mayhem. The danger is real, but judging from all available evidence, it's also very small.

The National Safety Council points out that the attack on the World Trade Center, which caused some 5,000 deaths, "would not qualify for inclusion among the 15 leading causes of death in the United States in a typical year." Most of us are not destined to die at the hands of al Qaeda. But by overreacting to the specter of terrorism, Americans may end up doing things that will shorten their life expectancy.

One thing we've done is avoid commercial air travel. It certainly looks less safe than it did a few weeks ago, but the odds of surviving a trip aboard an airplane are still exceptionally good. Yet people are abandoning the sky in such numbers that airlines are canceling flights, laying off workers and struggling to stay out of bankruptcy. Refusing to board seems like simple prudence to a lot of travelers who have no desire to make their final approach into a 100-story skyscraper.

But they are living in a fool's paradise. Even during the worst of times, you can hardly find a safer place than squeezed into the middle seat of a fully loaded 737. From 1995 through 1999,says the National Safety Council, the fatality rate for motorists was 37 times higher than for airline passengers on a passenger-mile basis. The 266 airline passengers and crew members killed on Sept. 11 seems like a huge number, until you place it next to the more than 40,000 Americans killed in traffic accidents every year.

So maybe the anxious should take Amtrak, as many people have? Well, maybe not. Over those five years, the risk of meeting your maker on a passenger train was three times higher than on a commercial airplane.

Train buffs, a vocal and persistent lot, may retort that these numbers are grossly misleading and out of date, because the risk of airline hijackings is much higher now than it was before. That's true. Alas, there's nothing to prevent a terrorist from turning his evil wiles to railroad tracks or train stations. Or to interstate highways, for that matter.

The rise of terrorist threats makes it hard to predict exactly how safe air travel will be in the coming months and years. But the uncertainty applies to every other mode of transportation as well.

Anthrax is the scare of the week, but as a weapon of mass destruction, it's a little short on the mass. So far, just one person has died of it, and that death occurred before public health agencies had mobilized against the disease. Considerably more Americans than that die each year from fireworks injuries, dog bites, bee stings or lightning strikes none of which cause us to wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

Some Americans have responded to the events of Sept. 11 with an old approach throwing caution to the wind. The Wall Street Journal reports that many people have given up all the forms of discipline they had endured in hope of living long and healthy lives. Drinking and smoking are gaining in popularity, while exercise and dieting are on the decline. New York prostitutes report an increase in business.

Weight-loss company Jenny Craig Inc. says it has seen a "sharp wave" of customers bailing out. "I don't know many people who eat celery when they're in trouble," said one diet doctor. Why worry about your health if you're going to be blown to eternity tomorrow by murderous fanatics?

The problem is that you probably won't be. Poor health habits, however, can greatly speed your passage to the morgue. Heart disease, cancer and strokes alone kill nearly 1.5 million Americans every year, and many of the deaths can be attributed to smoking, drinking, obesity, lack of exercise and other debilitating indulgences.

Osama bin Laden, try as he may, probably can't kill many Americans. So what do you say we stop trying to do the job ourselves?

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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