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.