On Fear of Flying (Not in the Erica Jong Sense)

The disconnect between fear and risk is always interesting. I knew a woman who lived in terror that her young daughter would be kidnapped by strangers but let her ride on the back of a relative’s motorcycle.

Never mind that that about 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year in the United States and 250,000 are injured in auto accidents. Or that motorcyclists are about 35 times more likely than people in a car to die in a crash and eight times more likely to be injured.

I think we all assess risk inappropriately, although perhaps not to such an extreme degree. Our fears are never perfectly aligned with statistical risks, no matter how hard we try to be rational. My favored theory is that our anxiety levels are often inversely proportional to the illusion of control we feel in a given situation, and perhaps that’s why airline travel can feel particularly risky. At the wheel of a car, when we are actually in far greater danger than in the seat of a commercial jet, we think we can do something to control risk — never mind that we may very well run into a situation (literally) where we can’t control it at all.

In that vein, I was very interested in the New York Times’ interview of Patrick Smith, a seasoned pilot and author of the excellent Ask the Pilot blog, on the topic of airline safety. “I can’t think of a single airline I wouldn’t fly on,” he said. That’s a strong statement, especially because he included regional and foreign airlines. (His Slate piece on the Asiana crash is also very much worth reading.)

I can’t say I”m a particularly nervous flier, or that the Asiana crash added any anxiety. But, despite the lack of any supportive evidence, I really hate revolving doors and will go out of my way to avoid one. If I should perish in an accident involving a regular, non-revolving door that I chose out of my irrational anxiety about revolving doors, I only hope I will realize how funny it is before the lights go out.

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