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Automobile accidents are among the most serious causes of death in America today, though the hazards have been deceasing. For example, in 2008, there were 37,261 traffic fatalities in the U.S. With a population of roughly 310 million people, this means that in any given year one in nearly 10,000 people will die in an automobile accident. Now, people drive lots of miles, so this is an imperfect measure of risk.

But consider this, it is estimated that in 1870, 6,000 Americans perished in theater fires. The population in America at that time was about 39 million. Therefore, about 1 in 6,500 Americans could be “expected” to perish in a theater fire in 1870. Given that a far smaller share of people went to theaters in 1870 than drive cars today, the event mortality risks were even far higher than these raw data make it appear. Taken as a whole, going to the theater in 1870 for an entire year was twice as risky a proposition as driving  for an entire year in 2008.

I was surprised when I learned this. I wonder if there was a Theater Patron Safety Lobby back then to make sure theaters improved their fire safety records? Surely there was no such group. So, how could it be that:

(1) The safety record managed to improve?

(2) I rarely hear about comparable risks when I hear scary and not so scary mortality statistics cited? It would be much more helpful for people to have something to compare it to. Telling me that 40,000 people die in car accidents every year is like telling me that the water in the Gulf of Maine is blue.

4 Responses to “Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Fatalities Edition”

  1. Rod says:

    My brother-in-law is a biochemist, and he invented/developed inexpensive genetic tests that utilize the same blood spot that’s taken from most new-born babies in this country and elsewhere around the world. When my son was born, that spot only tested for PKU, phenylketonuria, a genetic condition that could cause mental retardation if not treated soon after a child’s birth. My brother-in-law worked with the inventor of that inexpensive test to add nine more genetic diseases to the bloodspot test, and then he went on to add another fifteen or sixteen (I forget the number) diseases. While it might be prohibitively expensive to test every baby for, say, cystic fibrosis, if you test for 25 such diseases, the combined incidence gets very low — in the neighborhood of one in 200.

    The tests also have to be cheap. As my brother in law once told me, any idiot can devise a test for a genetic condition that costs $75, but it takes real genius to do the test for a quarter. Indeed, his battery of bloodspot tests is often the cheapest thing on the maternity hospital bill.

    Now, this is not to say that every couple has the same odds of having a child with a genetic condition. Some diseases, like sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease are conditions that families can be well aware of before a female member of the family gets pregnant. Same goes for traffic accidents: if one drives carefully and does not drink beer and clip nose hairs while texting behind the steering wheel, the odds improve.

  2. Our lifetime chance to die in a car accident for a person in a rural midwest town is still pretty high, at about 1 in 85, according to my calculations.

  3. chuck martel says:

    Overall, in the US literally billions of miles are driven for each traffic fatality. Automobile travel is the safest form of individual transportation ever in human experience.

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