Fear of Flying Takes a Deadly Toll

Which is safer: flying, or driving? Rationally speaking, it’s no contest. Commercial air travel in the United States is incredibly risk-free. In 2008, the U. S. fatality rate was less than 1 per billion passenger trips. In comparison, America’s roads are a veritable slaughterfest, prematurely ending some 50,000 lives every year.

Unfortunately, people don’t make decisions based on pure reason. To the brain’s subconscious fear centers, flying looks like a very bad bet indeed. Trapped in a narrow metal tube, dangling at precipitous heights with no apparent mechanism to keep us there — it’s no wonder that 20 percent of the public suffers from fear of flying.

So here’s the paradox. If we allow our emotion of fear to overcome our rational decision-making, we actually put ourselves at a vastly greater risk of having those fears come true.

In 2005, Garrick Blalock and two colleagues attempted to measure this effect. In a paper entitled “The Impact of 9/11 on Road Fatalities: The Other Lives Lost to Terrorism,” they focused on the time period when a spooked public, suddenly (but temporarily) extra aversive to air travel, took to the roads instead. Blalock and his co-authors estimated that by actually increasing their exposure to fatal crashes, Americans wound up suffering 1200 extra fatalities — more, the authors pointed out, than died in the 9-11 air crashes themselves.

This paradoxical dynamic poses a challenge for safety officials. Making the public too aware of potential danger can ironically drive them to far more dangerous behaviors. And enacting safety measures can also put them at increased risk. One of the reasons that parents are not required to strap infants into car seats on airline flights, for example, is that the expense of the additional seat would cause many of them to drive to their destination instead, with the projected loss of more children’s lives.

In 1996, a TWA flight from New York to Paris exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 aboard. Just about everyone, including the government, assumed that terrorism was to blame (it wasn’t; much later, the cause was traced to a faulty fuel tank). In reaction, the Clinton administration implemented a spate of new airport security measures that cost billions of dollars to implement. In an article published the following year, Robert W. Hahn estimated that the added inconvenience and expense probably resulted in the loss of extra 60 lives in road accidents.

The ironies were manifold. Terrorism, as noted, wasn’t the cause of the TWA 800 crash at all. Nor did the enhanced measures proved effective, anyway, when a real terror plot unfolded five years later in the skies over New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Today, we find ourselves in a lamentable state of deja vu. This time, a would-be bomber with explosives in his underwear has spurred the government to mandate an abrupt and massive increase in security measures — all enacted without prior assessment of their potential effectiveness at countering the prospective threat, let alone with an eye toward the fatalities that will certainly ensue as discouraged air travelers take to the road. And so, a plea to America’s aviation officials: for the safety of the traveling public as a whole, please don’t subject us to excessive inconvenience and unnecessary expense. Saving lives means keeping Americans flying.