Compared to unprotected sex, Americans underestimate risks of driving

A recent study looks at how Americans compare the risks of driving and unprotected sex:

Imagine that a thousand people—randomly selected from the U.S. population—had unprotected sex yesterday. How many of them will eventually die from contracting HIV from that single sexual encounter?

Now, imagine a different thousand people. These people will drive from Detroit to Chicago tomorrow—about 300 miles. How many will die on the trip as a result of a car crash?…

If you’re anything like the participants in a new study led by Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan, the HIV estimate should be bigger—a lot bigger. In fact, the average guess for the HIV case was a little over 71 people per thousand, while the average guess for the car-crash scenario was about 4 people per thousand.

In other words, participants thought that you are roughly 17 times more likely to die from HIV contracted from a single unprotected sexual encounter than you are to die from a car crash on a 300-mile trip.

But here’s the deal: Those estimates aren’t just wrong, they’re completely backward.

According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, you are actually 20 times more likely to die from the car trip than from HIV contracted during an act of unprotected sex.

While the rest of this article goes on to talk about perceptions of sex in the United States, these findings are consistent with others that suggest Americans don’t see driving as a threat to their safety. Driving is one of the riskier behaviors Americans regularly engage in: more than 30,000 Americans are killed each year in vehicle accidents. (It should be noted that this figure has dropped from the low 50,000s from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Driving today is safer than in the past.) Yet, Americans tend to like driving (or at least what it enables) and find it necessary in their daily lives (by social and political choices we have made) so those deaths and car accidents are acceptable losses.

Of course, it may not be long before even having to acknowledge our difficulties in weighing risks is no longer a problem due to driverless cars that eliminate all vehicle deaths.

Crime down but today’s parents less likely to let first graders go places alone

I stumbled upon this 1979 checklist for parents who want their children to attend first grade. Perhaps the most interesting point on the list: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” As you might expect, this drew some commentary:

It’s amazing what a difference 30 years have made. Academically, that 1979 first grader (who also needed to be “six years, six months” old and “have two to five permanent or second teeth”) would have been considered right on target to start preschool. In terms of life skills, she’s heading for middle school, riding her two-wheeled bike and finding her own way home. It’s not surprising that I came to this link via Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog. What is surprising is just how shocking a jolt it is to realize how stark the difference is between then and now.

I’d probably be considered a free-range parent by today’s standards; I’ve allowed a 7-year-old to walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied and left a 9-year-old in charge of siblings. But the idea of a kindergartener walking “four to eight blocks” alone? Crossing streets? Turning corners? Even though I suspect I did it myself, I can’t get my head around it. I have two kindergarteners this year (and one will be 6 in just a few weeks), and I check on them if I let them walk solo to the bookstore’s bathroom. Yesterday, I watched one of them get lost in the grocery store, trying to go two aisles over to the freezer section, where she’d been not 30 seconds before. Two to four blocks?

But there it is, in the middle of the list, as though the ability to find your way around your world at 6 years old was quite ordinary. The country isn’t different (Skenazy points out that crime rates are actually lower overall than they were in 1979). We’re different, and not just as parents. A commenter to the post points out that her children’s school doesn’t allow students to walk home alone (even with an older sibling) until fifth grade. And it’s a difference most parents are aware of already. But to see it laid out so clearly is to remember that it wasn’t just my own mother who expected more from me than I expect from my own kids, but all the mothers. I’m not suggesting we loose our kindergarteners on our neighborhoods, and I don’t plan to send mine romping any further than the yard. But I will try to broaden my ideas of what else they’re capable of—besides math and reading—this year.

It reminds me of the story of the New York City mom who let her 9-year old kid ride the subway alone (after proper training and guidance) a few years ago and the controversy that generated.

Somewhat hidden in the explanation of this shift in parenting is an important set of statistics: crime rates are down. Not just down; rates in some big cities, like Chicago, have hit lows not seen for several decades. But, as I have noted, this is not the public perception. Instead, we live in a world where crime always seems to just lurk around the corner (perhaps even in the suburbs!), we hear about all sorts of gruesome outcomes (real outcomes and on shows like CSI), and we hear more and more about child abductions (think Amber Alerts). In these cases, the perceptions about crime are more important than the actual data.

An analogy might also help explain this shift. In books like Scorecasting and elsewhere, some argue that football teams should never punt because they could then score more points. What can hold back teams from going against the norm is that coaches don’t want to be held responsible if their team does go for it on fourth down and doesn’t make it. It is “safer” to punt in most circumstances because one then can’t be blamed for following conventional wisdom. Could parents operate in the same way – which parent wants to play the odds, that their child will be safe when going places alone, and risk being wrong? How would other parents and other members of the community view such parents whose children then do fall into trouble?

h/t Instapundit

Risk of California superstorm – and what should be done about it?

Human beings have a remarkable capacity to build settlements in harsh conditions. Recently, I have wondered what would possess settlers in the 1800s to live in the Upper Midwest with its harsh winters. A classic example of a place with both advantages and disadvantages: California. On one hand, a temperate to warm climate with a wonderful range of habitats (mountains to coast) and rich farmland in the middle of the state.

And yet, California has a number of natural threats. The latest: scientists predicting a superstorm that could flood the state for an extended period.

A group of more than 100 scientists and experts say in a new report that California faces the risk of a massive “superstorm” that could flood a quarter of the state’s homes and cause $300 billion to $400 billion in damage. Researchers point out that the potential scale of destruction in this storm scenario is four or five times the amount of damage that could be wrought by a major earthquake…

The threat of a cataclysmic California storm has been dormant for the past 150 years. Geological Survey director Marcia K. McNutt told the New York Times that a 300-mile stretch of the Central Valley was inundated from 1861-62. The floods were so bad that the state capital had to be moved to San Francisco, and Governor Leland Stanford had to take a rowboat to his own inauguration, the report notes. Even larger storms happened in past centuries, over the dates 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605, according to geological evidence…

The scientists built a model that showed a storm could last for more than 40 days and dump 10 feet of water on the state. The storm would be goaded on by an “atmospheric river” that would move water “at the same rate as 50 Mississippis discharging water into the Gulf of Mexico,” according to the AP. Winds could reach 125 miles per hour, and landslides could compound the damage, the report notes.

Such a superstorm is hypothetical but not improbable, climate researchers warn. “We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes,” Geological Survey scientist Lucy Jones said in a press release.

If this is a real possibility, the question then becomes what the state should do about it. It is another example of weighting risks: should the state implement all sorts of rules and plans to limit the possible damage or should they simply go on with life and deal with the consequences when they come? Of course, California isn’t the only place that faces such questions: hurricanes pose a similar threat on the East or Gulf Coasts and many communities have homes or businesses built on flood plains.

Regardless of what California does with this information, perhaps this can become additional fodder for disaster movies. I can see the plot line now: California is hit with a major storm followed by a major earthquake with both accompanied with major mudslides followed by our set of heroes running for the hills…you’ve seen this plot line before. But this flood of 1861-1862 does sound intriguing – perhaps more information about this past event would help current officials plan for future events.

Risk of flying in different countries

A new study suggests flying is more dangerous in the developing world compared to the Western, industrialized world:

Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and a researcher on aviation safety, calculated that the odds of dying on a scheduled flight in first world countries such as Canada and Japan are one in 14 million.

But he found that flying in emerging nations such as India and Brazil leads to a one in 2 million chance of death per flight. Lesser developed countries, such as many found in Africa and in Latin America, were found to have a crash rate of one in 800,000.

Overall, Barnett says the data suggests airplane safety around the world is improving. Still, these figures could be frightening to some.

Barnett argues this issues in developing countries might be brought on “individualism and deference to authority.” I recall reading something similar recently that said there were more crashes and issues in an Asian country (perhaps South Korea?) because subordinates (anyone on the plane lower than the pilot) felt they could not challenge the pilot’s authority and therefore would not bring up possible problems if they saw them.

But these figures still obscure the fact that flying in an airplane is relatively safer than a number of other, more frequent activities. Check out this graph from the National Safety Council to see the odds of other activities.