Death by numbers

On any given day, an average of 148,000 people will die. That means over a million people have died in the last week. Nearly 5 million have died since around this time last month, which, incidentally, was exactly when we were briefly bombarded with the news that 199 people were killed in a Brazilian airliner crash.

Other deaths and possible deaths we’ve heard about since then include the 11 victims found so far in the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis; the six miners missing and three rescuers killed in a Utah coal mine; hundreds dead in the earthquake in Peru. To a somewhat lesser extent, we’ve also heard about 100-plus troops and the 2,000-plus civilians reportedly killed in the Iraq war in the last month. There was also news of the passing of several celebrities, including evangelist Tammy Faye Messner, talk-show host Merv Griffin and baseball’s Phil Rizzuto.

For all the ink, video footage and treacly Larry King segments devoted to these deaths, it should come as no surprise that they represent a fraction of a fraction of the number of people who have died since around the last time a new moon appeared in the sky.

Based on estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were about 3,500 automobile-related deaths during that monthlong period. U.S. cancer deaths hover around 42,000 a month. As for heart disease, the American Heart Assn. tells us that someone dies of cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds. And that’s just in this country.


As staggering as these numbers are, they don’t seem to scare or interest us nearly as much as things like plane crashes, mountain lion attacks, deadly roller coaster mishaps or avian flu. And because the news media is savvy about (and complicit in) our fears and fascinations, we are fed an endless supply of death news that has little to do with how most people actually die. Nonetheless, death by falling asteroid seems infinitely more real than death by cholesterol.

Call it selective fear, selective mourning. It may be an act of denial, but it’s also an act of self-protection. Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest that the lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 20,000. Those same figures put the chances of dying in a car accident about 1 in 100. So why, when our plane is taxiing down the runway, do many of us still indulge in various acts of magical thinking (if we can name the last 12 presidents the wing won’t fall off) even after blithely getting in our cars and making what is, statistically speaking, the far more perilous drive to the airport?

The most obvious answer is that the real risks (and, by extension, the multitude of daily tragedies those risks engender) simply hit too close to home. We don’t think about car accidents and heart disease not because we think it won’t happen to us but because we suspect or even assume it will. Given the inevitably, our response is to put it out of our minds entirely.

All that freed-up mental space leaves plenty of room to obsess about the proverbial lightning strike. Take the case of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Yes, it was the kind of visually intense story that television news can’t get enough of, and, yes, death toll estimates were initially as high as 80. But within a few days, it seemed clear that far fewer people had died. And although that doesn’t make the bridge collapse (or, for that matter, the subsequent Utah mine collapse) any less of a tragedy, it does make you wonder what other stories were bumped from the headlines in favor of breathless, around-the-clock coverage of the search-and-rescue operation, the victims’ families and the ensuing presidential visit.

Death doesn’t discriminate, but at least when it comes to the deaths of strangers, neither is it immune to certain hierarchical precepts. A cursory glance at what we pay most attention to suggests that grand spectacle rules the day. Sinking ferryboats trump bus accidents, but plane crashes, with their unspeakable, almost supernatural brand of horror, are the most riveting of all.

Young victims, naturally, hold more emotional currency than their adult counterparts, making the school bus crash a far better candidate for selective mourning than the commuter train derailment, which is in turn far more captivating than the deadly highway pileup.

Mammoth disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami aside, small-scale blight on home soil will almost always catch more eyeballs than larger events far away. As the death toll in Peru soared past 500, on TV at least, it was the Utah mine tragedy we couldn’t get enough of.

Meanwhile, 3,000 people, mostly sub-Saharan African children, will die today of malaria with nary an Associated Press story to spread the news.


We care, but the diseases and the car wrecks that kill thousands of us every day are so common that they’re the opposite of news. They’re also usually too frightening to contemplate. Freak accidents, in contrast, are freakishly comforting.