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Risk Management

My 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.

“This 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.

—Stephen Leon

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