Last week’s Fun With Statistics post on the Minneapolis bridge news, note I purposely did not call it a "catastrophe" or "disaster," created several public and private comments. Basically we questioned the national outroar over a single digit number of deaths when far, far larger numbers die from medical mistakes.
Five people have been confirmed dead in the bridge collapse. Five people die every 30 minutes from medical mistakes, using the oft-cited figure of 98,000 per year.
Where are the headlines? Where are the bills? Even when we do read about the problems with healthcare it has to do with access and cost, rarely about mistakes. Every now and then we’ll hear about some unfortunate situation where the wrong organ was removed, but not five or ten times an hour.
While the tragedy of 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 has justified two wars, in which thousands of U.S. soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, the tragedy of 245,000 lives lost in traffic accidents on the nation’s roads during the same period has justified . . . pretty much no response at all.
The article goes on to describe a couple similar relativistic conundrums.
This phenomenon is not just American, it is global. Traffic deaths are the fastest-rising cause of death in the world. Yet you’ve heard far more about H5N1 avian influenza, which has killed 192 people worldwide since being detected five years ago, than about the 6 million people who have died in traffic accidents in the same period. Last year alone, 1.2 million people were killed on the world’s roads, versus about 100,000 dead as a result of combat.
I’ve heard of several companies developing and implementing "bird flu contingency plans" but I bet not one of them has a policy to minimize employee traffic deaths… aside from "don’t speed in the parking lot." A quick amusing story on that: a previous employer of mine was having problems getting employees to pay attention to the "15 mph" speed limit signs in their parking lot. They changed them to "14.2 mph" and all of a sudden virtually everyone saw them and complied. Something about the odd or unexpected that catches your attention I guess. Which ties directly with the hypotheses presented by the LA Times.
Two forces seem at play in skewed perceptions of these risks. The first is the fundamental difference between harm because of accidents and harm because of deliberate action; the second, society’s strange assumption that traffic fatalities cannot be avoided.
Here’s where the big faults in our thinking come into play. Do the media downplay road dangers in part because the auto industry is the No. 1 advertiser on TV and among the top advertisers for newspapers? Detroit would much rather Brian Williams or Katie Couric titter about Paris Hilton, or the L.A. Times feature articles on Waziristan, than hear about 42,642 dead on the roads last year.
Typical Americans are to blame as well. Because we don’t want to contemplate dying in a car crash, we seem to assume that highway fatalities cannot be reduced, that they fall into the "stuff happens" category.
"Stuff happens." Perhaps it is psychologically true, but those of us in the lean world recognize a problem begging for investment in a solution. We know "stuff" doesn’t just happen, but we let it happen all around us.
And we often focus on the small statistic that’s unexpected versus the large statistic we know.