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Aug
21
2008

Three days national mourning for 12 days death on the road?

Spain’s Prime Minister declared a three period of mourning to mark the Madrid plane crash of 20 August. This reaction to the crash highlights yet again the intractable problem of finding a metric that everyone can agree upon for measuring risk.

The crash was what is sometimes referred to as a low-probability high-impact event. “High impact” is a malleable term. Compared to the Boxing Day tsunami or the Szechuan earthquake, the Madrid crash was a low-impact event. But compared to a road accident in which only a few people are killed, it qualifies as a high-impact event.

How should impact be measured? The number of fatalities caused by an event is a commonly used metric – sometimes converted into cash. In Britain the last time I looked a life was deemed by the Department for Transport to be worth £1.5 million. But the number is indexed for inflation so may now be higher. The Madrid crash killed 153 people – a loss, assuming a life is worth £1.5 million, of £229.5 million had it occurred in Britain. In Spain 153 people die in road accidents every 12 days – events also worth £229.5 million.

The probability of an air accident causing a loss of £229.5 million is vastly less than the probability that in the next 12 days in Spain road accidents will cause a similar loss. Yet the first loss merits three days national mourning. The second losses merit a few column inches. In terms of mangled flesh and grieving family and friends the two losses are equivalent. In terms of media impact and popular reaction the numbers appear irrelevant. What kills you matters.

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  1. Dr Ruth Armstrong says:

    Yes, point taken. An irony in this regard is how smoking is so demonised as a killer and nasty pictures of rotting lungs may be allowed to be displayed on cigarette packets or reminders that smoking kills printed at least. But each car does not come with a health warning that road travel kills emblazoned on the side or nasty pictures of mangled flesh used for the upholstery.

    I work a lot with helping victimes of road traffic accidents recover from the psychological trauma and am aware of the blanket of silence that appears to surround the carnage on our roads.

    I am not advocating health warnings on cars. Au contraire! I rather wish they would leave the smokers alone.

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