Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Earthquakes vs Automobiles: which to worry about more?

At the time the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan began, I was travelling in the US. The images of devastation were horrifying, and the video footage of the wall of water washing away buildings was particularly harrowing. Like many people around the world I have been asking myself ‘what if a disaster like that hit my city?’

Interestingly, much of the media coverage in the US focussed on the nuclear reactors. After the tsunami knocked out their cooling systems, they began overheating and several explosions and significant radioactive leakage followed. (As I write this, the efforts to stabilise the reactors are ongoing and the extent of the radiation pollution is unclear.) The American newspapers were speculating over whether such an event could occur in the US and talkshows were filled with opinion pieces suggesting that nuclear energy should now be phased out.

In my opinion, this focus on the risks posed by nuclear reactors puts a distorted view on the matter. The BBC website published a good article on mis-perception of risk, and why ‘radiation’ is seen as inherently dangerous despite the fact we utilise it safely in everyday life. The fact is, in this tragedy the number of deaths from the earthquake and tsunami greatly outnumbers the casualties from the nuclear disaster (at least, so far). If there is one important message from this it is to prepare for natural disasters, even if they are infrequent. Japan’s high structural standards for buildings prevented the earthquake damage from being much worse; many Pacific rim countries have much more lax standards.

Moreover, the risks posed by natural disasters are orders of magnitude lower than more mundane risks involved in everyday life. Road deaths, of drivers, passengers and pedestrians, greatly outnumber the deaths caused by large scale disasters (E.g., in the US there are c.40k traffic fatalities each year*). While I was in the States, I was reflecting on how their grid-based layout for cities requires pedestrians to cross a great number of roads. And in urban areas such as Manhattan (pictured) there is no distinction between major roads, where cars can drive fast, and minor ones; as a result most cars drive fast most of the time. If pedestrian safety took a higher priority (e.g. by lowering and enforcing speed limits, and pedestrianising city centres) more people might walk rather than drive in US cities making it a win for public health as well as safety.

In the wake of traumatic events it is easy to overreact. However a level-headed approach to assessing risks is critical if we are to make the right decisions to prepare for tomorrow’s emergencies.

*Automobile risks are discussed by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their book Superfreakonomics, in which they describe Robert McNamara’s efforts to get seat belt use enforced. ”Since 1975, [seat belts] have saved roughly 250,000 lives...at $25 a pop, [they] are one of the most cost-effective lifesaving devices ever invented.”

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