Opinion studies indicate that many Americans are terrified of flying. But there's good news from the Federal Aviation Administration for those nervous Nellies. Last year there were 14 million commercial airline flights carrying 615 million passengers. How many deaths? A big fat zero. The chances of dying by electrocuting yourself in the bathtub, being crushed to death by the airbag in your car or being hit on the head by a meteorite were about the same as by taking a ride on an airplane.
America has become a nation of worrywarts. We worry about everything fromglobal warming to the amount of fat in our breakfast cereal to theradiation emanating from our computers. A recent poll featured in USA Todayconfirms that we are concerned about the strangest things. More than halfof Americans say that successful cloning is one of their biggest dreads forthe 21st century. What is completely inexplicable is that 55 percent ofAmericans cited "technology" as one of their worries. How's that forunfounded paranoia? Technology saves lives, it doesn't cost them.
Maybe our greatest risk in the modern age is that of worrying ourselves todeath. The risks we now face in our daily lives are minuscule compared withthe risks of earlier times. In fact, the world is a much safer place todaythan it was at any time in history. Many of the things we fret about today,such as flying on a commercial airline, are not dangerous at all. If youdon't believe me, consider the following statistics:
- In 1997 we had the safest year on the highways ever recorded. Therewere fewer deaths per million miles traveled than ever before. The deathrate on the roads is about three times lower today than it was 30 years ago.
- The murder rate has plummeted in recent years. In 1997 the murder ratewas 6.8 per 100,000 people compared with 10.7 percent in 1990--a 40 percentreduction.
- The 1990s were the safest decade in recorded history in terms ofworkplace accidents and deaths. The death rate from work-related accidentswas five times higher in the 1930s and two times higher in the 1970s thanit is today.
- Fatal accidents at home have also dropped dramatically. These daysabout 10 of every 100,000 Americans die each year from accidents at home,compared with twice that number in the "good old days" of the 1950s.
What else do you worry about? War? Floods and tornadoes? AIDS? Nuclearaccidents? Acts of terrorism? Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Contaminatedair and water? Heart attack? Believe it or not, the death rate from everysingle one of those menaces is down--in most cases way down. In the last 20years modern medicine has made giant strides in treating and preventingheart disease. It remains a major killer only because, as life expectanciesincrease, we become more prone to this degenerative disease.
Worrywarts have shifted their phobias to obscure and distant threats posedby things like global climate change, alien invasions, cloning andsecondhand smoke. Most of the threats that were really serious andfrightening earlier in this century are no longer problems at all. Myparents often told gruesome tales of growing up in the 1930s when polio wasstill a dreaded killer. Everyone knew someone who had been paralyzed andconfined to an iron lung or a wheelchair. The Centers for Disease Controltells us that there was not a single reported case of polio in the UnitedStates in 1997.
One of the leading causes of death in America today is poverty. The bestway to continue to reduce the risk of injury and early death is to promoteeconomic growth and rising living standards through free-market capitalism.Paradoxically, many of the safety, health and environmental regulationsthat come out of the Environmental Protection Agency and the OccupationalSafety and Health Administration do not reduce risk. They are socost-ineffective that they make us poorer and thereby put people at greaterrisk of death than if we had never issued those regulations at all. Smartregulations save lives. Dumb regulations cost lives.
Now, if after reading this you are still nervous about the sky falling andthe world (or your own world) coming to an end, my advice is to board anairplane. These days, that's probably the safest place you can be.