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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
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
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.