CO105 Cathy Reisenwitz on Cars and Freedom

Cathy Reisenwitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and others, and she’s appeared as a commentator on Fox News and Al Jazeera, which an interesting combination to say the least.

In the discussion I mentioned the coining of the word NEETs, young people who are Not in Employment, Education or Training. I also mentioned how many young men have not worked a single hour in employment the last year – over 17 per cent.


On October 29 last year, Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia crashed, killing all 189 people on board died. On March 10 this year, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed killing all 157 passengers and crew.

Both planes were brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8s. In the days since the second crash, aviation authorities in countries starting with China, and finishing with the United States on March 13 have grounded all of this type of aircraft. This is remarkable because not only are these newly-delivered planes, they are a new model.

There are less than 400 of this type of aircraft around the world, the first one was delivered less than two years ago have been delivered around the world so far; Boeing has an order book of nearly 5,000 more, but I wouldn’t be counting on that now if I were them.

This could just be an unfortunate coincidence, but the fact that the two tragedies had similarities in the way that the aircraft crashed is worrying, as is the fact that during 2018 at least two pilots reported problems that could be related that happened when they were flying this model.

It’s notable that the government-ordered groundings began in China, and that the US was the last holdout, which looks like some political or national pride issues are in play here, as well as a concern for safety; so there is no guarantee that this decision-making process is driven by rationality.

But if we look at the risks in other transport and compare it to airlines, all rationality goes out the window. You could look at road accident statistics, and see a huge improvement, and you’d be right. There is some difficulty in measuring things here, because we are looking at death rates changing over time when a lot of other things are changing too; populations are going up, the number of cars is going up, and the amount we use them is going up, so if you saw an increase in fatalities, it could be just because of more driving, not because driving is any more dangerous.

But we don’t see an increase in fatalities; we see a huge decline. Fifty years ago, in 1969, there were more than 53,000 deaths on American roads. In 2017, the last year we have statistics for, there were 37,000 deaths. That seems like a good improvement, down from 53,000 to 37,000, a 30 per cent drop.

But that only tells half the tale. The population shot up in that time, so the death rate actually went down from 26 per 100,000 to 11 per 100,000; so the death rate more than halved – all those airbags, seat belts, driver ed courses, anti-drunk driving measures, anti-lock brakes, and so on have sure made a difference, but that still doesn’t tell the whole story, because the amount of driving has increased. A true measure of the risk is the number of fatalities per 100 million miles travelled.

That has been falling like a stone. It has gone 5 in 1969 to slightly over 1 death per 100 million miles travelled now. So driving now is five times safer than it was 50 years ago. And the improvement stretches back in a straight line for almost a century. In 1920, there were more than 20 deaths for every 100 million miles travelled. Driving now is much more than 20 times safer.

So that’s all good news, right?

Sort of. But look at the speed of reaction around the world to just the suspicion of a dangerous aircraft. Nearly 400 planes grounded, about $50b worth of aircraft, now they’re sitting there doing nothing, and will be for months. Think of the cost of that.

And consider this. After that huge decline in the danger of driving, a non-stop century of cars getting safer and safer. At the end of that century of improvement, driving is still eight times more dangerous than flying. And we don’t see the president giving a press conference ordering cars off the road.

We have a huge cognitive bias about the relative safety of cars. It comes, I think, from the fact that people prefer risks where they feel in control. People trust their own driving more than they trust a trained pilot’s flying; the stats prove they are flat wrong, but they just can’t believe it.

And one other thing, as well as saving lives, all those airbags and seatbelts have been costing lives too. Years ago, most road fatalities were the occupants of cars. But as the safety measures were introduced, some of that safety benefit was consumed not as lower deaths, but as riskier driving. That’s fine for the people in the car protected by the crush bars and rollover cages, but that just moved the risk outside the car. Pedestrians and cyclists are making up a much higher proportion of road fatalities.

All risk is not equal. It’s one thing to say ‘I want to get there faster, so I’ll take a risk and hit the gas’, it’s my life. But it’s another thing to say, ‘I can hit the gas without fear, because I’m protected by airbags and impact bars so I’ll be safe if I hit something, or someone’.

People might not say those things out loud, but the statistics shows that’s what is happening. If we have an excess of caution in the airline industry, perhaps we could move some of that spare caution into the driver’s seat on the roads.