Why Do Airplane Crashes Receive So Much Attention?

T he annual risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about one in 11,000,000 — a disputed statistic which is otherwise generally agreed upon by other sources — according to this article written by David Ropeik for Public Broadcasting Service television program NOVA.

Put another way, traveling by car is approximately 100 times more deadly than hopping aboard a airplane, according to this article written by James Ball for The Guardian. “For one, the fear of dying in a plane crash might actually kill you. For instance, in the wake of the 9/11 air tragedy, huge numbers of Americans switched from flying to driving – for the year following the attack, airline passenger miles fell between 12% and 20% while road use surged. Eventually Americans returned to the skies – but not all of them, tragically, were alive to do so, because driving long distances is much more dangerous than flying – indeed, because the increased road use may have led to more accidents. Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic, estimated that the road death toll in the year after 9/11 increased by 1,595 people.”

While not wanting “for one second to belittle the tragic loss of life that occurs with each air crash,” Martin J Cowling wonders in this article “what is it about a plane crash that impacts on our consciousness?”

Why Do Airplane Crashes Receive So Much Attention?

The author of the Wild About Travel weblog wrote that “Every two days, approximately 66 people are killed on Egyptian roads; a total of 12,000 a year. 45 people per 100,000 die on Egyptian roads. Thats a horrific statistic but no one says anything about it. A year ago, a bus veered off the road at Giza into a canal leading to 35 people dead. It barely made a blip in the West.”

I honestly have to say that after what I experienced as a result of driving in Egypt, I am surprised that the statistics are not significantly worse.

“In January this year, seven were killed and many injured when a train crashed into a truck in Giza, Not a word in the global media.” Cowling then continued: “In January, 2016,  at least 17 people drowned after a small ferry sank in the Nile River. Most of us are not aware of this incident.”

Yet the question of the safety of traveling by air to or from Egypt — especially with recent incidents as the Airbus A320-232 aircraft operating as EgyptAir flight 804 which suddenly disappeared from radar and plunged into the Mediterranean sea last month or the crash of an Airbus A321-200 airplane which operated as Metrojet flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh on its way to Saint Petersburg in Russia on Saturday, October 31, 2015 where all 224 people aboard the aircraft were killed — has placed more fear in people than traveling by vehicle in that country.

According to this article pertaining to flying versus driving written and posted on Wednesday, May 16, 2012 by Jim Motavalli for Car Talk, “Flying kills an average of 200 people a year in the U.S., says the Department of Energy; driving, meanwhile, killed 32,310 people last year. Each year, one in 6,800 Americans dies in a car accident, compared to one in 1.6 million airline passengers. You actually have a 1,000 times greater chance of being killed in a car accident than you do of winning a state lottery.”

State lottery? How about the PowerBall drawing where the prize was approximately 1.5 billion dollars? In this article posted on Sunday, January 17, 2016, I loosely compiled a random list of odds of things happening as compared to dying in an airplane crash — such as the odds of being the winner of that PowerBall drawing; me becoming president of the United States; or you being killed by an asteroid or a lightning strike.

Sensationalism Sells

“Each life is as precious as anyone else’s. Why do we focus on air travelers?” asked Martin J Cowling in the aforementioned article. “Why do we not worry about car deaths? Why do we not discuss ways to reduce those fatalities? The 24 hour news cycle repeating blow by blow incidents about planes compared with the scant attention any other incident has gives the impression to the general public that flying is somehow quite unsafe.”

Dying is something about which no one is immune — no matter what gender, age, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, profession, height, weight, or any other factor — and yet many of us fear having our lives end. It is a natural instinct to want to live; and we fully realize that we only have so much time to live our lives to the fullest.

Why is there such an interest when a famous person — such as Prince or Muhummad Ali — dies; as well as how and why they died? After all, people die every day. Other than an obituary and a few friends, there will most likely be no fanfare or media attention when you or I die — which will occur some time in the distant future, hopefully.

To be attracted to something sensationalistic is also natural — and appealing — to human beings. The simple phenomenon of “click bait” or “yellow journalism” to feed that appeal is an excellent example; despite knowing when a headline is obviously created to attract readers, many people simply cannot avoid reading the accompanying article…

…and if that headline contains any sort of sexual overtone, even better: are you likely to click on this article pertaining to a female school teacher who is 24 years old having sex daily with — and eventually becoming pregnant with the baby of — a student who is only 13 years old? Would you have the same level of interest if the genders were reversed and a male school teacher impregnated a girl who was 13 years old? What if that male school teacher was 65 years old instead of 24 years old? Would you have a different opinion about the story and the people involved?

Now let us get back to automobile accidents: sure, there are enough automobile accidents all over the world in which the death of at least one person resulted which can fill up several BoardingAreas of weblogs. Unless the accidents were sensationalistic enough — such as involving a drunk celebrity driving an insanely expensive sports car — how many articles pertaining to deadly car accidents will you read before you either get numb reading them or take them for granted where they no longer interest you?

An airplane crash is spectacular. So many people dying at one time in one single incident. The twisted and mangled metal of what was once a safe environment demonstrating how horrific was the incident; or seeing pieces of the result of the incident wash along the shore from the sea which claimed every life aboard the airplane. The thought that something like an airplane crash could even happen despite all of the safety measures and policies designed to prevent such an incident…

…and let us not forget that as passengers, we have no control over what happens aboard an airplane. Do you really want to be constantly reminded that you are far more likely to lose your life in the car in which you are about to drive — a conveyance which is under your control — than in many other modes of transportation? Do you really want to think about how you are substantially more likely to die of cancer or a heart attack — both of which are almost never news; and yet each disease kills many more people than airplane crashes even though there are numerous ways to help prevent them from occurring?

Weather is another phenomenon upon which the media prey upon readers and listeners with the carrot of sensationalism: how many times have you heard in recent years someone in the media exclaim something similar to “as many as 100 million people are in the path of this deadly storm”?

Summary

Forget about just airplane crashes: people have questioned for many decades as to why headlines tend to overwhelmingly cover disasters, tragedies, lewdness and other unfavorable conditions experienced by society instead of focusing on the countless number of good deeds performed by people every single day.

The answer is simple: the murder of several people usually gets more attention than the good Samaritan who visits a retirement home or children’s hospital to bring cheer to inhabitants of those institutions. The wanton lusty escapades of scantily-clad women usually get more attention than volunteers at shelters who assist with women who were sexually abused.

I will be the first to admit that that is wholly unfair — but that is simply the manner of the human condition in general.

When you think about it, none of it really makes much sense other than the fact that many people respond to sensationalism despite repeatedly knowing the facts — and feeding upon that craving for sensationalism is what has brought in revenue for the media since there was even such a thing as media.

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

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