Just started reading Beyond Fear by Bruce Schneier. He write a lot about actual risks versus perceived risks.

Bruce Schneier - Beyond Fear
In America, automobiles cause 40,000 deaths every year; that's the equivalent of a full 727 crashing every day and a half -- 225 total in a year. As a society, we effectively say that the risk of dying in a car crash is worth the benefits of driving around town. But if those same 40,000 people died each year in fiery 727 crashes instead of automobile accidents, you can be sure there would be significant changes in the air passenger systems. (I don't mean to harp on automobile deaths, but riding a car is the riskiest discretionary activity the majority of Americans regularly undertake.) Similarly, studies have shown that both drivers and passengers in SUVs are more likely to die in accidents than those in compact cars, yet one of the major selling points of SUVs is that the owner feels safer in one.
This really illustrates how subjective people's feelings about risk are. Looking at and talking about risk statistically compared to how we mentally deal with risk is interesting. Media coverage of human rights issues based on the closeness of the culture to ours is similarly subjective. The fact is, mentally, the value of a life depends on the context. We are all very subjective. Acting like we aren't clouds the issues. Journalists who say they are impartial and politicians who represent "everyone" all run this risk. Bruce's book takes a very pragmatic approach to risk, trying to describe the actual quantifiable risks, but also describing all of the factors that are involved in the decisions about security methods to deal with those risk.

I'll post more about this book as I continue to read it. (I read slowly...)

PS It's interesting to note that traffic accidents account for about 10,000 deaths a year in Japan compared to 30,000+ deaths due to suicide. You're 3 times more likely to commit suicide than get in a deadly traffic accident in Japan.

14 Comments

The following data collection procedures skewer the Japan/US fatal crash comparison.

Fatal Crashes (jpn): 1983 -2002 NOTE: Number of deaths that occurred within 24 hours following a traffic accident.

Fatal Crashes (usa): Glossary
A police-reported crash involving a motor vehicle in transport on a trafficway in which at least one person dies within 30 days of the crash.

What that says to me is that the number of traffic deaths in the US and suicides in Japan is really much closer. Which is crazy when you look at how many people are in each country. Japan seems to have a real problem on its hands.

"You're 3 times more likely to commit suicide than get in a deadly traffic accident in Japan."

Whoa, that's wild. Can someone here, preferably a japanese person living in japan, attempt to explain this a bit?

Bruce also points out that you are more likely to be killed by a pig in the US than by a shark.

By the way, he also does the calculation of death/mile when asserting that driving is more dangerous than flying, which is important.

I've written some stuff on this blog about Japanese suicides.

Capital Punishment Crime and Interest Rates
Life Insurance and Suicide
Paying for Suicide

Joi,

you of all people should know that "official statistics" here are pretty much whatever numbers the reporting organization pulled out of their ass. Have you read "Dogs and Demons" yet? The author goes into some interesting detail on this matter.

Also when comparing any two sets of numbers, one absolutely must make sure they are comparing the same things

How does one get killed by a pig?

I am a big fan of risk management, as I've stated in previous posts on this board, but also question the utility of the statistics in that context. Sure, there would be an outcry if that many people died in planes every 1 1/2 days, but keep in mind how many more people drive per day than fly. There is an issue of scale here, that is not articulated (at least in Joi's quote) as part of the argument.

Chris: totally agree about statistic. read Dogs and Demons. A former chairman of a major TV network in Japan once told me that half of the high profile suicides reported in the media were actually murders...

Matt, I agree it's a bit apples and oranges, but he does calculate deaths/mile and says that driving is still higher risk.

I haven't read the Schneier book yet, but other material on risk that I have read concludes, that the notion of risk is emotional instead of rational, simply because the "world" is made out of human beings.

Thus the attempt to measure (and control) risk mathematically when the underlying behavioural system is irrational may be fundamentally flawed.

Matt;

Dirk

Dirk,

I'm not finished with the book either, but that's sort of the point that Bruce gets to in a sense. He basically says that different people have different emotional tolerances for different kinds of risk. I think his point is that even if we ARE rational, everyone will have a different answer to what is an acceptable risk to them. He tries to deconstruct how decisions are made and risks are presented so that you can make better decisions about risks.

You may be interested in reading John Adams 'Risk'; he is the guy who introduced the concept of risk compensation and proven that seat belts, air bags etc. have made roads less safe for vulnerable road users (pedestrians and cyclists). In other words, do you want to make road safer? Then legislate for a sharp spike coming out of the steering wheel, its point 5cm from the driver's chest.
I don't know what that would do to the suicide rate.

Talking of risk, Schneier etc., this is a interesting story, if you haven't seen it yet:

Security professionals are distressed that noted security researcher Dan Geer was fired by his employer, @stake, for publishing a controversial paper warning that Microsoft's market dominance threatens U.S. security.

http://infosecuritymag.techtarget.com/ss/0,295812,sid6_iss125,00.html#news1

As Matt says on his site, now's the time to "Get a Mac"...

Dirk

Grant asked on September 29, 2003 03:35 PM, "How does one get killed by a pig?"

As an industrial accident: by falling or being pulled or dragged into a hog pen by hundreds of hungry hogs as large as 300 Kg at feeding time on a factory farm.

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