- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

On Thursday President Bush was asked about whether he felt it was safe for people to fly again. He responded that he would have no reservations about putting his own family on a commercial plane.

Whether Americans share that sense of confidence is another matter altogether. Americans will undoubtedly be even more terrified of boarding an airplane than normal and fear of flying is one of America's national pastimes. Even many major American corporations have banned air travel for at least the next week or two.

But flying is a lot safer than most Americans think. Statistically speaking, commercial airplane crashes whether caused by bad whether, pilot error, air traffic mistakes, or even hijackers are extremely rare.

Even accounting for the 4 hijackings this week, it is still true that airplane travel is now the safest form of transportation ever devised.

In 1998, for example, there were 14 million commercial airline flights carrying 615 million passengers. There were zero crashes and zero fatalities. (See Chart.) In 1999 and 2000 there were less than five in each year. According to the research organization STATS, "your odds of dying in a plane crash [based on recent experience from the 1990s] and based on flying 100,000 miles a year on large commercial jets, are about 1 in 500,000." STATS also finds that if you fly just 2,000 miles a year, your odds of dying in a plane crash are roughly equivalent to your odds of being hit on the head by a plane falling on you.

I have talked to many people in recent days, including my wife, who say they will from now on drive or take the train, whenever they have those options, rather than fly. This is the height of irrationality. The death rate from flying on commercial airlines is at least 4 times lower per mile traveled than driving a car. Train crashes are far more common than airplane crashes. In other words, if you are you are motivated by fear to drive to your out-of-town destination, your chances of dying are much, much higher than if you fly.

But more so than ever, Americans will think flying is dangerous because that horrible scene of the jet slamming into the World Trade Center is now indelibly sketched in our minds. There but through the grace of God could have gone you or me. Yet if we are going to be frightened of such random acts of terror that have minute statistical probabilities of occurring then are we also going to fear entering tall buildings (probably), going to a shopping mall, a football stadium, a bus, Disney World? Are we going to fear sending our kids to school?

To live in such terror is to well, allow the terrorists to accomplish their objective: to defeat capitalism by bringing American commerce to a standstill.

Prior to this week, the odds of dying in a terrorist incident were far less than the odds of dying from falling off a ladder at home or from riding a bicycle. The rate of death from catastrophic events (accidents killing at least five persons), had fallen about threefold over the past 50 years. You have a microscopic 1 in 400,000 chance of dying in a catastrophic accident.

This may not seem very reassuring given that we have just suffered the worst catastrophic event on American soil in at least 100 years. But if you are worried about premature death, the best course of action is to stop eating, drinking and smoking to excess and you will do far more to extend your life span than by avoiding flying on an airplane.

In fact, it is precisely because acts of terrorism have been so rare in recent times that we were so caught off-guard and had become so lax in security to allow these monsters to succeed in their dastardly deeds.

The best way to avoid future acts of terrorism is through rational acts of prudent security and precaution and, of course, by seeking retribution as a means of deterrence.

Whenever we radically alter our lifestyle out of irrational fear (for example, by driving not flying), then we often engage in more dangerous behavior, not less. The journal Psychological Science recently found that one risk of early death is fear itself. The journal found that "people who catastrophize experiences suffer from poor decision-making and are more likely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

In other words, we must not allow terrorists to literally scare us to death.

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