To Fly Or Drive?

The disappearance of MH370 has sent out a ripple of fear towards flying, but is flying really that dangerous? LILY delves into the psychology of it and shares some concrete statistics.

The disappearance of the MH370 plane and its alleged crash is a catastrophic incident that has caught the world’s attention, putting aside political and cultural differences within and between countries in the search for the missing aircraft. On the day of the incident, I received text messages from friends to check that I was not on board the MH370; meanwhile, I was doing the same to my friends. In the days that follow, I have been hearing comments such as, “My uncle is going to Beijing soon. He is very worried whether he should go”, “Oh dear, I’m not going to travel for some time” and so on. For those who already feared travelling on a plane, the fear is now aggravated into an outright phobia. I try to put myself in their shoes to understand why they behave as such; to me, if I need to go somewhere, I would just pick up the luggage and board the plane. Accidents can happen anywhere and are not limited to flights.

It was reported that after 9/11, many Americans took to driving long distances instead of flying. Most people have virtually no fear of driving on the road as compared to being on a plane. In psychology, it is called “illusion of control”. It summarises the insecurity we feel because the plane is beyond our control while the steering wheel of a car is controlled with our own hands.

Aircraft accident rate has dropped tremendously today as compared to 20 years ago (see graph and chart below) thanks to modern technology. On the other hand, not that I want to instigate phobia towards driving, road accident is one of the top 10 causes of death, according to World Life Expectancy’s records.

In helping us to look at things from a more accurate perspective, here are two questions:
Does the media highlight plane journeys that were completed safely?
Is it a norm to see headlines about car accidents?
The answer to the first question is “no”; the media only focuses on horrifying and serious cases, such as the recent MH370. Therefore, you do not realise that most plane journeys are completed safely and accidents are rare. As for question number two, too many car accidents occur every day that if the media was to report them all, the readers would probably be bored to death with the repetitiveness. So common are traffic accidents that it only makes it into the headlines if the accident is massive, usually involving several vehicles, which is rare but it does happen.

Therefore, psychology comes into play again. Psychologists call this “available heuristic”; we make immediate judgments about incidents based on the frequency of our exposure to them, yet if we allocate time to do some research and analysis, we will discover quite a different conclusion!

Last but not least, do not be deceived by misrepresentation of reality due to selective information highlighted by the media and public.

I do hope that this short article will not shift your phobia of flying to one of driving, but I would like to point out that even though a plane is beyond its passengers’ control, many car accidents are beyond the drivers’ control as well. Below is an interesting compilation of car crashes in Malaysia. Even though some shots are not clear, it is obvious that the driver is not in control of the steering wheel all the time. Enjoy the clip!

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