Terrorist Death Math

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Matt Yglesias wondered about our intense national focus on aviation security, and wondered what it would take for air travel to become less safe than famously unsafe highway travel. A reader of his crunched some numbers:

In the US, 583 billion passenger-miles were flown in 2008…  So if all that travel was done by car instead (obviously not feasible) with a fatality rate of 11.35 deaths per billion miles, we’d expect an increase of 6,617 deaths. In other words, terrorists would have to blow up 16 full 747′s a year (about one every three weeks) to make air travel as dangerous as car travel. I think that number gets at the point you were trying to make about the exaggerated scale of the threat of aviation terrorism.

This is useful and interesting, it seems to me, but only up to a point. One problem is the difference between actual risk and psychological dread. People dread airplane crashes more than car crashes (maybe because it’s extra-terrifying to imagine the long plunge to the ground). Thus a little more aviation terror would likely have a huge impact on how often people fly. That, in turn, could bring down airlines (which required a post-9/11 bailout) and throw a shock wave through the wider economy.

That said, al Qaeda’s obsession with airlines does seem peculiar given the enormous havoc a terrorist could wreak by bombing the New York subway or blowing up a packed Los Angeles nightclub.

P.S. In related aviation security news, a comely former “Baywatch” starlet insists TSA screeners pulled her aside for a body scan on grounds of hotness.