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What Are We Afraid Of?

By       Message Todd Huffman, M.D.     Permalink
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What scares Americans more, water or terrorism? If you said terrorism, you 'd be correct. But you 'd be wrong, very wrong, to think that terrorism was more dangerous.

Water poses serious danger to people in their daily lives. As we sadly saw much too often here in Oregon last year, drownings are all too common, even among good swimmers. By contrast, the chance of dying a victim of terrorism is infinitesimally small. Yet Americans are far more afraid of terrorism than of water.

Terrorist attacks are very rare, despite illusions of evidence to the contrary on the evening news. And most attacks affect only a few people. Even in 2001, counting the toll of September 11, about 3000 Americans died from terrorism. That same year, forty-two thousand Americans died in road accidents. Twenty-thousand American children died from motor vehicle accidents, bicycle accidents, gunshot wounds, burns, and falls.

Why do we fear the wrong things? Largely because of our crisis-driven media, which sears spectacular images into our minds, and diverts our anxieties from big risks toward smaller risks. Television, especially, invades our senses with up-to-the-minute scenes of violence and terrorism - one atrocity overtaking another. It distorts reality, leading us to believe that we live in a frightening world in which we could be the next victim.

Our government only adds to our anxieties, by alternatively issuing color-coded warnings of unspeakable things and unknowable events, then admonishing us to go about our daily lives. We 're told to keep our gaze fixed on approaching catastrophes, leaving us blind to the risks that really matter.

Why else do we fear the wrong things? There are the biological fears, such as of dangerous animals, confinement, and heights. We fear shark attacks, even though only several dozen people have fallen victim to sharks over the past century. We fear airplanes, even though we are, mile for mile, 37 times more likely to die in a vehicle than on a commercial flight. When you fly, the most dangerous part of your trip is the drive to and from the airport.
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We also fear what we cannot control. Bicycling and skiing are hundreds of times more dangerous than pesticide residues on foods, or food preservatives. Yet many people gladly assume the risk of biking and skiing, often adding risk by going without protective gear, while paying a premium to purchase organic, preservative-free foods.

Finally, we fear what 's immediate. Smoking does not kill you right away, which is why smokers, whose habit shortens their lives an average of five years, are more apt to be fearful of flying or of terrorism than of their cigarettes.

Dramatic events capture our attention, while probabilities we hardly grasp. We see lottery winners on the news, and thus overestimate the infinitesimal odds of lottery success. We see vivid airline crashes, and thus overestimate the infinitesimal odds of a lethal airline ticket. Having had thousands of safe car trips, we underestimate the dangers of driving to the degree that we further increase the danger by talking on our cel phones, and by eating our meals while driving.

Another startling fact: since the terrorist attacks on September 11, more people have died than is average on American highways - because there are more cars on the road now in part because many more people are afraid to fly. In the four years since, the number of additional Americans who 've died on the highways has surpassed the number who died on that terrible day, the result of crossing that fine line between precaution and paranoia.

We are much safer from terrorism than we imagine. Far more worrisome are the common risks of everyday life. Want to reduce those risks? Be sure you and your kids are wearing your seat belts. Kids should ride in the back seat until age 13, and in a child safety seat until at least age 6. Be sure you and your kids are wearing your helmets when bicycling, skating, and skateboarding. Keep your guns locked and unloaded. Supervise your kids every second they are around water. Be sure you and your kids are wearing lifejackets when near rivers, lakes and streams. Be fearful not so much of terrorism, but of our human tendency to overemphasize lesser problems while underestimating, even ignoring greater ones.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.

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