By Laura Vanderkam
It's summer again, season of freak accidents — and widespread freakouts about them.
In late June, for instance, a 12-year-old boy died after riding Disney World's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in Orlando. It made national news and on cue, two days later, Time
's website published a piece called "Too Many Thrills?" reflecting many peoples' concerns. "Another roller coaster death," the teaser said, "prompts speculation that the era of faster, higher and scarier may be coming to an end."
Careful readers might notice that similar speculations abound every time there's a ride accident.
After all, a Disney fatality last year sparked a previous round of similar pieces citing widespread concern about lax regulations: "Are parks putting too much risk in thrill rides?" —St. Petersburg Times
, June 19, 2005; "Disney World death raises calls for more theme park oversight" —The Associated Press
, June 17, 2005.
Yes, when it comes to things such as the annual one to eight deaths each year on amusement park rides, it's easy to feel uneasy. In news stories, three items make a trend. Because all ride accidents make headlines — for instance, the recent death of an 8-year-old boy who had just ridden the Fireball at the annual Ionia Free Fair in Michigan on July 22 — we start to wonder: Are we safe? Should the government do something about deadly rides?
Well, in a word, no. Or at least not until governments address the really dangerous things in our lives, such as furniture or bathtubs. Indeed, despite the approximately 175 million visits we paid to North America's most popular parks last year, park rides kill fewer people than such freak things as igniting or melting nightwear, hot tap water and venomous spiders.
Turns out, when it comes to what kills us, we have trouble accurately assessing risks. News media reports don't help — and that's too bad, because in this age of mass media, we need a conversation about what risks we're willing to accept in order to have a good time. The answer could be higher than we realize.
Researchers have identified a few biases that make it hard for us to view risks rationally:
• First, Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that people are pretty good at monitoring the risks they see and hear about. "What people have difficulty doing is figuring out when appearances are deceiving," he says. "If the news media report a lot on one thing and not on another, it's hard for people to intuitively correct for that."
A person dying on a roller coaster is a national story because it happens so rarely. A person struck crossing a railroad track, however, is seldom more than local news. With about 500 railway trespassing fatalities per year, it happens every day.
• Second, when something big happens, news stories and our brains tend to view the big event as evidence of a change in risk-signal levels, rather than an outlying statistic. So we stop, reevaluate and often crack down or pass laws before sanity prevails.
School violence, for instance, fell 50% from 1992 to 2002. Yet 2000's Million Mom March, seeking more gun control, cited the 1999 Columbine massacre as evidence that school violence was epidemic.
• Finally, we have a higher tolerance for controlled, understood risks than scary-sounding ones we can't control. We brazenly sell peanuts in vending machines, though peanut allergies kill 50-100 people each year.
Yet when anthrax killed a few Americans shortly after the 9/11 attacks, we treated our mail boxes like biohazards for months.
None of these tendencies is a problem if we know them. At talks, Fischhoff likes to hold up a picture of a hand, shaded to show patches, such as the ring finger, that seldom get washed. When you see the picture then simulate scrubbing, the missed spots become obvious. Because you have the full picture, you can wash differently.
Unfortunately, when it comes to risk, we seldom see these realities. We don't realize that the sheer existence of mass media has changed the perceived risk level, making major stories out of fluke risks, particularly risks we can't control. That makes everything — including amusement parks — seems scarier than it was.
Reading Bill Bryson's upcoming memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
, I was shocked to learn how many risks parents let kids take in the 1950s. Young Bryson hung off the back of his dad's moving car. He biked — helmetless — all around town by himself. No one he knew in Des Moines got hurt doing those things, so they seemed OK.
Now, if one child anywhere in the USA is abducted at the movies, it becomes national news — and the perceived risk shifts.
Yet our policy discussions haven't caught up with this change. We've decided everything is risky, which is true. Soft bodies moving through a world of sharp objects and careless people do suffer damage. Indeed, we have to die of something.
Children's deaths make us sad, but we don't honestly believe the standard of safety should be zero deaths. If so, we couldn't drive or even take the train. For the social utility of transportation, we're willing to tolerate far more deaths than amusement park rides produce.
Which raises the question: What level of risk is acceptable when the upside is plain old fun?
Though a huge accident could change our minds, the current fatality statistics on rides suggest that, despite our hand-wringing, Americans might be willing to tolerate a handful of deaths per year in the pursuit of happiness. That's not the kind of thing that's easy to talk about, but it's a conversation worth having. While hurtling upside down at 60 mph might not be smart, it's smarter than making laws because freak accidents make headlines. Laura Vanderkam, who lives in New York, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.