But bus crashes seldom receive the sort of sustained attention that plane crashes or train wrecks receive, even when there are multiple deaths. A tour bus returning from a casino crashed near Palm Springs, Calif. last month, killing 13 people. Nearly 300 articles were written in the first 48 hours after the bus crash, according to Nexis search. But nearly 900 articles were written in the same period about the crash of a New Jersey Transit train that killed one person.
Why is that human beings — or at least the ones in the news media — tend to focus so intently on plane and train crashes while shrugging off the carnage that occurs on the highway, even when multiple deaths occur? Why are some people more frightened of flying to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving than they are of driving there — even though they must know that the actual risks involved are the reverse? Is it because people assume that planes and trains are inherently more likely to cause catastrophic injury while overlooking the dangers on the road — when the opposite is the case?
Barry Glassner, a former journalist who now toils in academia, has given more than a little thought to this in his book “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage & So Much More.”
“We’re living in about the safest time in human history — and there seem to be an almost infinite number of fears and scares out there,” Glassner said. “Americans are often afraid of low probability risks.”
Glassner, a social scientist who is president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., said the reason has a lot to do with media coverage, along with the emotional wiring in the human brain. The brain is addicted to the illusion of control, which may be one of the reasons people generally feel safer behind the wheel of their family car than they do flying on a commercial jetliner.
“If I get in my car, I believe I have control. I know how to drive my car. I’ve had a lot of practice at it. I know that I’m careful. I know I’m sober,” Glassner said. But, “I don’t know who is driving that plane or train or bus. So even though those people probably have a lot more training and competence at what they’re doing than what I have in my car, it doesn’t feel that way to me.”
In other words, it’s how we feel about these things, not the way we should necessarily think about them. And the best way to counter that perceived risk is to keep hammering home the real risk, Glassner said. So we’re happy to oblige him.
The National Safety Council has compiled a wonderfully morbid chart that asks, “What are the Odds of Dying From …” Here you find that the odds of perishing in a motor vehicle crash are about 1 in 113, while your odds of getting a heart attack are about 1 in 7. Meanwhile, the odds of dying as an air traveler are 1 in 9,737.
Fear, as it turns out, is a blunt instrument for survival, better calibrated over eons to keep us safe from lions and bears. It has a harder time sorting out abstractions, and can confuse isolated incidents with trends. That’s especially true when media fixate on an event, such as a plane or train crash.
“These kinds of fears make their way into our minds the same way that discount stores get their messages in our minds: by volume,” Glassner said. “If you keep hearing stories in the media or in conversations over the water cooler about a particular crash or a series of them, it’s going to seem like it’s really a big deal and scary . . . It’s not about rational calculation.”
Why should this matter? In his book, Glassner argues that on a larger scale, emotionally distorted reactions to our fears can lead to expensive, ineffective or even counterproductive public policies. When “crack babies” appeared, the book says, physicians were quoted as saying that these infants’ lives were virtually doomed because of the damage they received from their mother’s drug addiction. Later studies, however, found that the impact had been relatively small.
But Glassner also said that part of the reason has to do with the ordinary everyday choices we make.
“Fatal crashes are dramatic. Wearing helmets when you go bike riding is not,” Glassner said. “But if we could successfully get people as worried about hopping on their bikes without their helmet, as we do about getting on a train after there’s been a lot of attention to a train wreck, we’d sure be a lot better off.”