The Actual Risk of Attack

Google the phrase “security theater” and you’ll see what most clear-headed people think of the hysteria hitting our airport security lines after the attempted attack a few weeks ago. For some of the blowhards on cable news channels wringing their hands about null, no amount of searches, x-rays, and profiling is too much if it’s what’s needed “to keep us all safe.”

Of course if we really worried about what’s needed to keep us all safe, we’d lower the speed limit, ban cell phones in cars, and raise the minimum driving age to 18 across the country. (Especially since driving while texting is more dangerous than driving drunk.) Let’s fine people who don’t exercise too, since the two ways people are most likely to die are from auto accidents or heart disease.

Nate Silver of political stats site FiveThirtyEight.com put together a great piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend: Crunching the Risk Numbers. It’s got the kind of analysis you’ll never hear from a politician, with the conclusion that we’re spending way too much money and wasting far too much time in order to prevent something that is statistically close to zero in terms of real risk.

“In the decade of the 2000’s, only about one passenger for every 25 million was killed in a terrorist attack aboard an American commercial airliner (all of the fatalities were on 9/11). By contrast, a person has about a one in 500,000 chance each year of being struck by lightning.”

He also debunks the myth that flying has gotten more dangerous. “Violent passenger incidents” were at least five times less common this past decade than in the ones before. Fewer hijackings, fewer bombings, fewer attacks on pilots. If you add all incidents together since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and divide that into the number of total passengers that have flown on a plane, you get this fun fact:

“The chance of a Westerner being killed by a terrorist is exceedingly low: about a one in three million each year, or the same chance an American will be killed by a tornado.”

He notes that Homeland Security’s budget is 50 times larger than that of the weather service. So living in a tornado zone is surely more dangerous than leaving it…on an airplane.

Here’s the bottom line though: “…at best we will reduce the risk from an extremely small nonzero number to a slightly smaller nonzero number.”

When do we stop the bluster and say “Enough!” ?

Related post: The Opportunistic Traveler

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