Our understanding of risk is very much misplaced. When we hear about fatalities in train or plane crashes, the news is widely reported. New safety regimes are put in place. There are large scale changes made. But the reason these incidents are reported is because they’re so unusual.
Sadly, the biggest transport killer is our roads.
Last week there was an accident on a ride at the Alton Towers theme park. Rides have been closed in other theme parks, and Alton Towers itself has only just re-opened. Refunds are being offered to those who no longer wish to visit.
But the way the incident has been reported suggests that most people really don’t take heed of real risks.
I would not for a moment want to make light of last week’s awful accident at Alton Towers. The injuries sustained by the victims of it will be felt for the rest of their lives in some cases.
But to put things into perspective a little, let me do some maths.
Alton Towers had around 2.5m visitors in 2013.
In the year ending June 2013 (the most recent reported year), there were 24,580 killed or seriously injured casualties on our roads including 1,760 deaths (Serious injuries are defined here. In short, they’re serious).
To put that in perspective, this is a good number. When looking at deaths in particular, it’s the second lowest figure since records began – the lowest being the year before. Deaths have been reduced by 44% in the last eight years.
There were an additional 168,710 casualties who were “slightly injured.”
In the year ending June 2013, a total of 239.4 billion vehicle miles were driven by cars (I’ve excluded commercial vehicles, and totalled four quarterly numbers for cars).
I’m going to have to make some assumptions now.
Let’s assume that 75% of people who arrive at Alton Towers do so by car. I can’t find a proportion reported, but while there will be significant numbers arriving by rail and coach, Theme Parks by their very nature are set up for car drivers. 75% feels like a fair number.
Let’s assume that each car is carrying on average four people. A family.
Finally let’s assume that each car is driving an average of 100 miles to and from the theme park. 50 miles each way. That seems reasonable. Two hour drive times are often quoted for theme parks, and that’s well within that distance. I suspect I’m low-balling this number with many prepared to drive significantly further.
That gives us 46,875,000 vehicle miles driven to and from Alton Towers.
But we know that there is one person killed or seriously injured every 9.7m miles driven, and one person killed every 136m miles driven.
In other words 4.8 people a year are likely to be seriously injured on their way to or from Alton Towers each year, with one death happening every three years.
This would seem to be the most dangerous part of a visit to the theme park – driving there and back.
Lots of assumptions, and of course this makes no difference to those who’ve suffered in this accident. But getting in your car and driving is one of the most dangerous things you do. Yet aside from massive multi-lane pile-ups, or accidents involving famous people, it’s not an area that gets reported even though nearly five people a day are dying in car accidents.