Risky Business: Playing the Numbers Game

Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

03.27.09 | 9:49 AM ET

Visitors at the Iraqi National Museum. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Two seemingly unrelated items in the news recently caught my attention. Actress Natasha Richardson dies in a skiing accident in Quebec. The first Western tour group in Iraq safely complete a 17-day excursion of that besieged nation.

What do the two stories have in common? They speak directly to a vexing question every traveler faces: is it safe to go there?

By all accounts, Richardson was engaged in a prudent, tame jaunt at a ski resort near Montreal. She wasn’t helicopter skiing down K2. She wasn’t hot-dogging it. She was taking a beginner’s lesson on a bunny slope. Yet she is dead, after falling and developing a blood clot in her brain. The Iraqi tour group, on the other hand, was engaged in what most of us would consider a far riskier trip. Yet they are all fine.

Natasha Richardson, we conclude, was just unlucky. Or, as some armchair critics charge, imprudent. They question why Richardson waived off the initial ambulance that was dispatched. Why, they wonder, did it take four hours before she was seen by a doctor?

This sort of blame game is common. Pilots are quick to pin the blame for an air crash on the dead pilots. Why? By assigning a human failing as the cause of an accident, we maintain the illusion of control. That pilot flew into a thunderstorm, so I can avoid his fate by being a better pilot. Natasha Richardson waited too long to get medical help. Her death was avoidable, and therefore so is mine.

Of course, we’re kidding ourselves. We have less control than we think, and that is especially true on the road. A country can be safe one second and a deathtrap the next. Thailand was a relatively safe destination on Dec. 25, 2004, but a terribly dangerous one the next day, when the Asian tsunami slammed into Phuket, killing thousands of people, including many foreign tourists.

The fact is we humans are not very good at assessing risk. We worry more about dying in a plane crash than an auto accident, even though, statistically, driving is much more dangerous (65 times more dangerous, according to the magazine American Scientist). Why are we so off-base? Again, it’s about control. We feel in control behind the wheel of a car, not in the back of an airliner.

We also tend to disproportionately fear ancient, outdated risks. Many people, for instance, report an intense fear of snakes, even though the odds of being bitten by one is infinitesimally small. That’s because the fear of snakes resides deep inside our primitive brain—the amyglada, to be precise, an almond-shaped bundle of tissue that resides just above the brain stem. It is a primal fear, and those are the most intense.

Tolerance for risk is a very personal matter. It depends not only on who we are, but where we are in our life. Most of the adventure tourists on the Iraq tour were middle-aged or older. None had families. That is no coincidence. During my time as a foreign correspondent for NPR, I traveled to Iraq many times, as well as Afghanistan, Sudan and other “hot spots.” I didn’t give it much thought. It was my job. Now, as the father of a 4-year-old, I think twice before going to these places.

I don’t base my travel decisions, though, on those State Department advisories. They are largely useless—snapshots of the recent past, not the present, let alone the future. Besides, our minds tend to latch on to the most dramatic, terrifying aspects of these warnings, just as a hypochondriac can always find a website, somewhere, that will confirm that they have some terminal illness. For instance, I’m about to depart on a trip to Kyrgyzstan, so I checked the State Department advisory for the capital, Bishkek. It included this dire warning: “The Kyrgyz Republic has a high rate of violent crime due to unemployment and a large number of organized gangs. Muggings often occur after dark and can be quite violent, leaving the victim severely injured.”

That sounds scary. Really, though, it could be describing many American cities. Besides, places almost always seem more dangerous from a distance. From suburban America, all of Iraq seems equally dangerous. That is not the case. The Kurdish enclaves in the North are relatively safe.

So is the answer to just stay at home? Not necessarily. Each year, some 600 Americans die falling out of bed. Another 320 drown in bathtubs. Imagine if the State Department issued warnings for our homes, and not just foreign countries. We might never get out of bed, let alone into a car.

The best traveler, I think, is a fatalistic one. We can meet our maker in the alleyways of Fallujah or the bunny slopes of Quebec. Or, for that matter, the bathtub in our home. Best not to think about it too much.

3 Comments for Risky Business: Playing the Numbers Game

JackieB 03.27.09 | 2:31 PM ET

I’m not sure the Natasha Richardson in Quebec vs. Iraq comparison is fair- she didn’t die because of the location, she died because of the activity. If you go to Quebec and don’t ski, obviously the risks diminish considerably. If you go to Iraq, however, and stray off of the tour path and seek out hanging out with insurgents, then your risk increases significantly. In this example, the activity posed the risk- not the location.

RL Boutelle 03.27.09 | 5:18 PM ET

I am afraid that JackieB misses your point entirely. If Natasha Richardson had slipped on a chunk of ice on a sidewalk on the way to a restaurant at Mt. Tremblant, we probably would not be conversing right now. The fact that fatal head injuries are one in a million as a result of skiing seems to be of little significance to most.  More head injuries occur in auto accidents, in the home and on the job.She did not die because of the activity. She hit her head. It was tragic accident.. Period.
    You are right. Our tolerance for risk is a personal matter. It is shaped by misinformation and not much common sense.. More than 10 skier/boarders have died in avalanches and about the same number have had high impact crashes with trees in the US this ski season resulting in over 28 deaths.
  My wife and I traveled to Europe on the first anniversary of 9/11. I lost count of how many people questioned my judgment to take that trip. Should I curl up in a ball and stop living? Common sense, good planning and sensible precautions will diminish your risks in anything you do. It’s those risky statistics that prevent so many people to enjoy the adventure of travel.

Cate 03.27.09 | 11:31 PM ET

A tad alarmist sounding but rings very true. You don’t know when your time is up, you could choke on a piece of popcorn while watching a movie on tv, in your ‘safe’ home; or die on route to one of your biggest adventures yet. Personally I would choose the latter anytime. It is better to have lived and experienced life than to stay at home and worry about the possibility of dying.
Bishkek is one place I plan to visit, alone. Like you I know there is an element of risk in this city, because I researched the country’s situation and am constantly checking updated information. My tolerance for risk is considerably higher than others, but I also make an effort to be as well informed about possible risk factors in order to have some preventative measures ready.
Most people are sensible and do prevent problems from arising, outside of natural disasters. It’s the naive traveller who thinks the world is one big happy family, that can often comes unstuck and runs into problems.
Good on RL Boutelle for going to Europe when he did. I would have done the same thing myself.

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