More people die in traffic wrecks than in homicides, fires, terrorism and plane crashes combined.
So why do many people have panic attacks when they get on a plane but have no fear of driving to the airport?
Ryan Brown, an associate psychology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said there are several reasons the loss of life from traffic wrecks seems to be accepted as a part of modern life while less dangerous threats generate so much emotion.
For starters, people don't understand just how dangerous getting into a car is.
“There is a fair amount of research evaluating people's sense of the likelihood of dying in certain kinds of accidents,” Brown said. “In general, people overestimate their risk of, for example, dying in a plane crash and underestimate their risk of dying in a car crash.”
False sense of control
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 7,944 people died in Oklahoma traffic wrecks during 2000-10. Nationally, 450,793 people died in wrecks. Less than 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks in that period, the vast majority in the 9/11 attacks.
U.S. Transportation Department statistics show airplane crashes kill between 100 and 200 people each year in the United States.
One issue, Brown said, is that most fatal traffic accidents involve one person, maybe two. Wrecks that kill three or more people are exceedingly rare. But when a plane crashes or a terrorist strikes, mass casualties usually result.
“That means it gets a lot of media attention,” Brown said. “This gives people images that they can bring to mind. Those images convey a lot of emotion and can be brought back up the next time someone gets on a plane.”
Another factor is that drivers have a false sense of security when they are behind the wheel of an automobile.
“When you are driving a car, you feel like you are in control,” Brown said. “When you are in a plane, you aren't in control because there is a pilot. The same is true, obviously in a terrorist attack. We know that a sense of being able to control your destiny is important to people.”
The No. 1 cause of traffic wrecks is speeding.
Other causes like alcohol and distraction also involve choices or errors made by drivers. This makes it easy for people to dismiss their own danger because they think they are better than the average driver.
“We all think we are great drivers,” Brown said. “That gives us a false sense of control that ratchets down our emotional reactions.”
Such misconceptions about danger are common, Brown said. They permeate to other issues, such as gun violence. The CDC reported more than half of all gun deaths from 2000 to 2010 were suicides, yet most people think of homicides as the main cause of firearm deaths.
Brown said similar research shows about 200 people died in school shootings in the past decade, with about 700 dying in gun accidents every year.
“When we talk about gun violence, people think about Sandy Hook,” Brown said. “But the reality is you are much less likely to get shot in a school shooting than accidentally messing around with a gun. It's the same sort of contrast with auto accidents.”
These misconceptions make it difficult for those preaching traffic safety to make their point using simple rational and logical arguments.
Alice Collinsworth, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, said local officials look to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for guidance on programs that work.
The agency puts out a publication outlining strategies that have been effective across the country to convince people to wear seat belts and avoid drunken driving and other dangerous traffic behaviors.
“We analyze statistics and data to make sure we spend our funds on programs that work,” Collinsworth said. “NHTSA has done a lot of research to find out what works and how to get the best results for the money.”
Brown said simply appealing to motorists' sense of logic isn't enough and likely never will be. Convincing people to take traffic dangers seriously may be a losing proposition because our brains will fight against it.
“You can't stop getting on the road in this society,” Brown said. “If you were to adequately embrace the risk of that, it's a bit much. The consequences are so severe that to cope with that risk, we really can't do it.”