mother heard some alarming news one evening a number of years
ago, and reacted in the only way she knew how. The news was
that all four of her grown children had decided to vacation
together on Martha’s Vineyard, and therefore would be taking
the same 45-minute ferry ride from Woods Hole to the island.
The reaction was to imagine the worst possible tragedy that
could result from our reckless, ill-considered plans: a capsized
ferry, all four of her children drowned.
Never mind how remote the chances were of the ferry going
down (last year’s Staten Island ferry crash being a freakish
anomaly), or the fact that a sinking boat in a small, crowded
harbor is not an automatic death sentence for people who can
swim (and we all can). In fact, I’m sure it never occurred
to my mother that statistically, we were in much greater danger
driving 70 mph on the Massachusetts Turnpike trying to get
to the dock on time.
My mother also used to have the morbidly amusing habit of
reminding me, on the eve of her and my father taking any kind
of airplane trip together, where in their house the will and
other important financial and legal documents could be located.
This is something she never, ever did prior to an automobile
trip, no matter what length.
But let’s not just pick on my mother; after all, she’s hardly
unusual. Many Americans apparently share the same tendency
toward irrational fear of calamitous events they’ve been conditioned
to believe are far more likely than they actually are—while
feeling paradoxically comfortable, even cocky, about their
safety when they’re doing something that truly is statistically
dangerous, like driving (or smoking—and the parallels between
these two health hazards are truly remarkable).
Recently I had furniture delivered from a small company in
Glens Falls to my home in Albany’s Center Square. After I
gave directions to the woman who sold me the furniture, she
paused and began awkwardly trying to apologize for what she
was about to ask. “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way,”
she stammered, “but, um, what kind of neighborhood is it?
I mean, is it safe? My drivers were just a little worried,
you know, they’ve heard stories . . .”
Of course, I could picture the stereotypical scenarios her
imagination had conjured up: her nervous drivers navigating
mean streets populated primarily by winos, prostitutes and
pimps, drug dealers and teenage gang members, gun-toting street
robbers and carjackers, and so on. A delivery truck halted
at a stop light, tires blown out by gunfire, occupants thrown
to the curb and demanded to empty their pockets, or else .
My neighborhood is safe, I assured her. I briefly pondered
but did not mention that drugs, gang kids and the like are
not unheard of in my neighborhood, though not very likely
to rear their ugly heads in any kind of threatening way in
daylight on my relatively safe, heavily traveled street. I
also briefly pondered but did not mention that the last time
someone was fatally shot in Center Square, it resulted not
from street crime but from a tragic mistake by an Albany cop.
At five o’clock, I asserted, Center Square is lively and nonthreatening,
full of upstanding people on their way home, to restaurants,
the grocery store, etc. Why, I said—truthfully, but no doubt
unconvincingly—your drivers will be in more danger on the
Northway on their way down here.
The perception of cities as generally dangerous places is
fairly widespread among many people who live in suburbs and
rural areas (a fact that is particularly ironic given that
many suburbs, statistically, are more dangerous places to
live and raise children because the exposure to automobile-related
risk is greater). But if fears of the city are merely exaggerated
(and hyped by sensational media accounts of drug dealing and
gun violence), other “dangers” that periodically make front-page
news are downright off-the-map crazy. Worried about West Nile
virus? Anthrax? Getting chomped by a shark when you go dipping
in Long Island Sound next summer? If you’re very young or
very old and weak, of course you don’t want to come down with
West Nile virus—or the flu, for that matter. All illnesses
become more threatening when you’re vulnerable. Most of us
should worry about West Nile virus no more than we should
worry that an alien might be hiding in our bedroom closet.
Shark attacks? The vast majority of us never swim anywhere
near them, and surfers, well, they’re nuts anyway. Anthrax?
Yeah, someone could send you a tainted envelope. Or a letter
bomb. You could also get killed by a falling piano.
While the media certainly are complicit in stoking our irrational
fears of statistically insignificant dangers, there may be
something else at work here, perhaps a broad cultural malaise
in which we’ve been so conditioned to blame and sue and expect
protection from any unforeseen calamity that we fail to take
responsibility for our own behavior. That might go a long
way toward explaining how a 40-year two-pack-a-day smoker
can sue tobacco companies for his lung cancer. But at least
our society finally has acknowledged the folly of our tobacco
habit; we are much less willing to admit that our driving
habits are downright lethal. In a fascinating New Yorker
article on SUVs [“Big and Bad,” Jan. 12], Malcolm Gladwell
explored the history of the trucks’ exploding popularity—and
the irony of so many people buying them for safety reasons
(many models are unsafe because they roll over too easily,
but a perhaps worse problem is that people drive them with
an inflated sense of invincibility—and simply can’t stop the
damn heavy things in time). Gladwell also recounted the scandal
involving Ford Explorers that crashed because their faulty
Firestone tires blew out. There were congressional hearings,
lawsuits, and sensational stories in the news—when the tire
failures under scrutiny actually accounted for a teensy fraction
of the nearly half a million highway fatalities that happened
during the 10-year period studied.
is what people worry about when they worry about safety,”
Gladwell wrote. “Not risks, however commonplace, involving
their own behavior, but risks, however rare, involving some
unexpected event.” So relatively few people—and certainly
not governments or their departments of transportation—are
worrying about the fact that Americans are still driving too
fast, running red lights at will, and passing and lane-changing
too aggressively on our ever-widening highways. Or that drivers
continue to act belligerently toward one another and to pedestrians,
who are mowed down with alarming frequency everywhere from
busy city intersections where motorists think their right-of-way
trumps that of people on foot (it doesn’t) to wide suburban
roads where no adequate provision was made for pedestrians
who might actually dare to cross. Or that highway-fatality
statistics reveal an annual carnage 13 times greater than
the loss of life in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
My mother had one thing right in the worry department: She
always grabbed hold of my hand as we began crossing a street,
even into my teen years when I had to swat it away lest the
embarrassing act be observed by my peers. Then again, once
or twice—fearful that I would slip and crack my head during
my bath—she told me that more people die each year from bathtub
mishaps than from car crashes. Maybe that’s where it all starts.