It was one of those historical occasions. Like the death of JFK. Or the first moon landing. Everybody seems to remember what they were doing when we first saw those chilling pictures on 11 September 2001. Who could believe it? Airplanes being deliberately flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. Almost 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of this wanton act of terrorism and more than 6,000 were injured.
We watched in disbelief as the TV stations played it over and over. Our senses were assaulted by the anguish and the horror of the spectacle. Responsibility for the heinous crime was claimed by Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim extremist group founded in Pakistan and active throughout the Middle East. Many of us had hardly heard of them, and those of us who had, believed its activities were confined to traditional Muslim communities. It was a major shock that they could impact so violently on a modern industrial society. And it was beyond comprehension that someone would willingly and with obvious pride want to associate itself with this heinous crime.
All of a sudden we became afraid to fly. We tried to assuage those fears by tighter security at airports. Western nations augmented their internal security. One way or another we knew in some way the world had changed.
I can remember in the months after, flying from Rockhampton to Brisbane. For some reason (indeed a reason we will never know because Qantas seems reluctant to share these things with its passengers) our landing approach was aborted and we overflew the airport. We were headed straight for central Brisbane and the limited high rise that constitutes the inner city. There were murmurs of alarm and consternation from passengers as we headed directly towards the cluster of multi-storied buildings. Then the plane veered south and did another circuit to position itself to approach the runway from Moreton Bay. There were sighs of relief and little titters of nervous laughter.
But around the world there was a pronounced reluctance to fly. Even though, assuming some ongoing terrorist activity, flying was still statistically a far safer way to travel than most others. But we don’t get live coverage of car crashes. We make movies of highjacking airplanes and committing other terrorist atrocities. But we seem to just shrug off motor vehicle accidents as something expected and perhaps unavoidable.
Gerd Gigerenzer is a German psychologist who studies the use of bounded rationality and heuristics. He studied the impact of Americans flying less and driving more after the Twin Towers attack. This is what he had to say:
“This is a good example of where intuitions and gut feelings can go wrong, even cost your life. We know that after 9/11 many Americans stopped flying. What did they do instead? Did they stay home or did they drive? I analysed the data and published a study showing that for 12 month after 9/11 miles driven was up 5 percent more than usual. And that cost the lives of about 1500 Americans. They lost their lives while driving in an attempt to avoid the fear of flying.
These people were motivated by a kind of emotional gut feeling of fear that is well known. The fear is not of losing your life – it’s the consideration of where many people can die at one time. So that doesn’t apply to driving. More than 40,000 people lose their lives in the US on the road every year, but not many care much about it. But if it’s a large number (as per the Two Towers atrocity) – about 3,000 at one time – that’s really what causes fear.
The reason may be evolutionary. In times when humans were in small bands, wandering around, the loss of many lives at one point would have threatened the survival of the whole group. That kind of gut feeling is still around – people are afraid of catastrophes, killer bees from West Africa and other kinds of things. Here’s where an education of the public can help to avoid these fears the next time something happens.”
Gerd Gigerenzer published a paper comparing the number of road fatalities before and after the 9/11 event. In the US the shift from airline transport and road transport lasted merely one year. Road fatalities increased dramatically in the year after the terrorist attacks and then returned to normal statistical levels. Gigerenzer calculated the increased number of Americans killed from this switch of transport options. The number was 1,595.
Daniel Gardiner reporting this work in his book “The Science of Fear” noted that:
• This is more than one half the death toll of history’s worst atrocity
• It is six times higher than the total number of people on board the doomed flights of September 11.
• It is 319 times the total number of people killed by the infamous anthrax attacks of 2001.
Yet no one demonstrated in support of reducing the fatalities from car accidents. No one was promoted to engage the media as needing to fight this pernicious loss of life. When it comes to making these sorts of decisions we are not rational. We seem to be easily swayed by the dramatic pictures of multiple deaths and unmitigated horror to the degree that the mundane risks of our everyday lives are considerably downplayed.
It is comforting to know that our security measures have made our flying options safer. But what comfort is this when our loved ones die more frequently, without great public concern, in mundane traffic accidents. Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda operatives are less effective in killing us than the random acts of chance on our roadways.