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How We Die 

click to enlarge 583 people died on March 27, 1977 at the Tenerife (Canary Islands) airport when two Boeing 747s like this one collided in aviation's worst accident. Yet it's still 140 times safer to fly than drive. - ADRIAN PINGSTONE, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Adrian Pingstone, Wikimedia Commons
  • 583 people died on March 27, 1977 at the Tenerife (Canary Islands) airport when two Boeing 747s like this one collided in aviation's worst accident. Yet it's still 140 times safer to fly than drive.

We recently visited a friend who lives near Tillamook, Ore., within the local tsunami zone. I was struck by her fear that when (not if) an undersea earthquake off the Oregon coast set off a huge tsunami, she and her family would be swept away. "It's all they talk about around here," she said.

It's certainly good to be aware of tsunami risks. No doubt the death toll from Japan's 2011 Tohoku earthquake would have been much higher in the absence of basic safety information and planning. Nearly 1,900 people lost their lives in that event, which makes it one of the worst natural disasters in modern times. On the other hand, this event - the strongest known earthquake to hit Japan - was responsible for the death of about one Japanese in 70,000. That's about the same as a U.S. citizen dying from a bee or wasp sting, and about 10,000 times less than the odds of dying of cancer.

If you have relatives in the Midwest or East Coast (or, speaking personally, in the U.K.) you've probably been regaled with earthquake warnings. It's only a matter of time, apparently, until the next really Big One hits, and you're crazy for living here. You may indeed be crazy (who am I to judge?), but not because you don't worry about death by seismic action. The 1989 Loma Prieta quake, for instance, resulted in just 63 deaths. That's less than a week's worth of California traffic fatalities.

Those whose business is risk management would find these examples trivial. Most of us, however, tend to magnify the risks we hear about, the theatrical, newsworthy events - air crashes, for example - while downplaying the everyday ones, like traffic deaths. Also, we tend to play up (by a factor of up to 1,000!) the risks that we have no control over (flying, say) over those we do (such as driving), which leads in this case to an exaggerated fear of flying. Do the numbers: Driving kills about one person per 70 million passenger miles; domestic flying results in about one death per 10 billion passenger miles. That is, you're about 140 times safer flying than driving the same distance.

So, how will you die? Most likely, as you probably know, is death from heart disease (1 in 6) or cancer (1 in 7). Despite the risk of driving vs. flying, you're still quite unlikely to die (1 in 88) as a result of a vehicle accident (compared with a plane accident, 1 in 7,000). How about dangers that the media is constantly reminding us about? Drowning only accounts for 1 in 1,100 deaths; 1 in 10,000 of us will be electrocuted, while 1 in 120,000 people will die from a dog bite. Shark attacks, beloved of the tabloid press, on average account for one human death, per year worldwide (while we humans kill 100 million sharks annually). Compare that to the 1 in 112 of us who will take our own lives, suicide being twice as common as homicide.

Finally, how about those flooding and earthquake risks? Your risk of dying by flooding, including tsunamis, is about 1 in 170,000; while 1 in 150,000 of us will meet our maker as a result of an earthquake. I guess I'll take my chances in our tsunami-seismic-ridden paradise.

Barry Evans ([email protected]) considers his odds of being fatally hit by a bus in Mexico at approximately 100 percent.

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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