Thursday, August 7, 2008

Most common causes of accidental death

When you worry about dying in an accident, what do you worry about? Earthquakes? Plane crashes? Terrorist attacks? Hurricanes? According to author Amanda Ripley, what we most worry about has nothing to do with what we are most at risk for.

What are the most common causes of accidental death?

1. automobile accidents
2. poisonings
3. falling

I'll be most people could have guessed number one. Two and three surprised me though. I have NEVER worried about being poisoned to death or dying by falling, at least not since I was a child and playing make-believe.

Ripley uses dread to explain the disconnect. And I'm over-simplifying a bit here in order to summarize, but here's a nifty equation she came up with to explain what is likely to scare us:

Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness

Take an automobile accident for example: it's on a small scale, most likely; you have control because you can drive the vehicle; it's familiar to most of us; and when car crashes happen, they're quick, so the time for suffering is short.

Contrast that with a plane crash in which you wouldn't have control; it could be minutes between when the cause of a crash occurs and the plan actually crashes; the scale is usually much larger with many more deaths; and it's usually much more catastrophic in our imaginations.

So, even though it would be more rational to fear a car crash over a plane crash, many of us probably find the scales tipped the other way when it comes to anxiety.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jessica, For number 3 falling.
Do you mean like how grandpa fell and hit his head, off a cliff, or falling like in a plane?
Or does it cover all of these things?

Planes used to scare me, but I got over the fear. I just had do except the fact that if I die this way then I have no control over it. Basically I had to admit defeat and say that I am going to die.
Same thing with cars.
R.I.P. Christina

Jessica Knapp said...

Well, I haven't read any complete studies on the subject, just the list in Ripley's book ... but my understanding was that falling meant falling like the way grandpa fell—just falling over and hitting your head, or falling onto something, or breaking your hip and never recovering from that. I would imagine falling off a cliff would count, too. Although I think an airplane crash would be a different category.

Amanda Ripley talks about part of what scares us most being what we have the least control over. We're actually not very likely to die in plane crashes at all. But most people fear them because we have so little control when we're on a plane.

Your ending sentiment reminds me of something Joseph Campbell wrote about a fair amount. We have to come to terms with our own mortality before we can ever really claim enjoyment of life. It's all part of the same process of understanding. (I'm rereading some of his writings right now. I'll try to post something about him later in the week.)