Safety != comfort
A few days ago, I started seeing links to Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent look at “SUV culture” and the disconnects between perceived safety and real safety. It’s an incredible read, especially if you might have ever looked longingly at the latest behemoth on the road.
Bradsher brilliantly captures the mixture of bafflement and contempt that many auto executives feel toward the customers who buy their S.U.V.s. Fred J. Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, says, “Sport-utility owners tend to be more like ‘I wonder how people view me,’ and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that.” According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford’s S.U.V. designers took their cues from seeing “fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls.”
The truth, underneath all the rationalizations, seemed to be that S.U.V. buyers thought of big, heavy vehicles as safe: they found comfort in being surrounded by so much rubber and steel. To the engineers, of course, that didn’t make any sense, either: if consumers really wanted something that was big and heavy and comforting, they ought to buy minivans, since minivans, with their unit-body construction, do much better in accidents than S.U.V.s…. But this desire for safety wasn’t a rational calculation. It was a feeling.
In linking to the story yesterday, Scoble mentioned the statistical ridiculousness of being comfortable driving, yet being afraid to fly.
I’ve given up in trying to correct the stupidity of my friends (stupidity in this context is the lack of ability to apply any risk analysis to their lives). I have never met one of my brother-in-laws, for instance. Why? He lives in London, England. He won’t fly. He’s afraid of flying. But he drives. Let’s see, you’re 1000 times more likely to die in a car than in a plane accident. If he’s afraid of flying he should absolutely be freaked out about driving. But he drives a bus.
The thing is, this is something that I can identify with — far better than I’d like, in fact.
I used to love flying when I was younger. My family travelled a lot, and heading to the airport and getting on a plane meant I was going somewhere new, off to see new things and explore more of the world. Nothing could have been cooler. I’d be completely jazzed from the moment we hit the airport until we landed, gazing out the window seat to watch the ground below or the movement of the wings, feeling myself sink into my seat as we rose into the air — it was great.
Then I turned 18, and — funny, this — my parents suddenly stopped paying for me to travel. I spent the next ten years in and around Anchorage, not getting on an airplane again until I flew to Fairbanks one February to DJ a dance at UAF. Suddenly, I was a little nervous — nothing major, but I was a lot more conscious of the fact that an airplane is a giant metal tube, hurtling through the air thousands of feet above the ground. It wasn’t enough to really get to me, but it was definitely there. Still, nothing major.
Until December of 2001.
I had the single worst flight I’ve ever been on on the way up. Most of it went fine, but then about half an hour before we touched down, we hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever gone through, plus multiple air pockets where the airplane would suddenly drop for a couple seconds before it caught lift again. I’ve got to say, that was the most all-out terrified I’ve ever been — one drop I might have made it through with just being a little frightened, but when it kept happening over and over, I really started to freak out. I was completely convinced that we were going down — especially when after it started happening, and when the captain came on the intercom, rather than telling us something about how we’d hit some turbulence and would we please all sit down (which, while it would be stating the obvious, would have been somewhat reassuring), all he said was, “Would the flight crew please sit down and buckle in now.” Not encouraging.
Ever since then, I’ve been terrified of flying. The sane, calm, logical part of my brain knew that it was flat-out stupid. Statistically, flying is the single safest mode of travel we have. Thousands of flights a day go all over the world without any problems. The chances of being on a flight that suddenly goes seriously bad are so slim to be almost laughable.
But it didn’t matter.
All I could think of when I got on an airplane was the feeling of that flight suddenly losing all lift, and dropping out of the sky. My head was filled with visions of this or that piece breaking, the pilots not being able to regain control, and I’d end up trapped in a giant metal coffin coming screaming out of the sky at hundreds of miles an hour. Ever bit of turbulence, every random sound the airplane made as it flew, and I’d be white-knuckling the armrests, closing my eyes, and doing my best to find whatever mental “happy place” I could until it was all over. My last couple flights, I took to dosing myself with Sominex just before takeoff — it wouldn’t knock me out, but it did at least calm me enough that I wasn’t completely freaking out.
I think that part of what triggered the extreme reaction, both during the flight that initially scared me so much and during subsequent flights, was the feeling of lack of control. When I’m in a car (especially when driving), I know that I’m in control of the vehicle, and if anything goes wrong (from mechanical problems with the car I’m driving to bad road conditions to other idiot drivers on the road), it’s up to me to make sure that I’ll make it out alive. If I survive (and even better, if I survive unscathed), wonderful — and if I don’t, then at least I can be sure that I did everything I could.
In an airplane, though, I have no control. I’m just a passenger, and an even more powerless passenger than I would be in a car or bus. Driving, even if I’m not the one behind the wheel, than if the driver suddenly conked out, than I know that I have the ability to take the wheel if need be (this may not be very realistic, but it could happen). Flying, however, there’s absolutely nothing I can do if something goes wrong. No matter what the situation is, all I could do is sit in my seat, ride it out, and hope and pray that we land safely. That feeling of powerlessness, of lack of control over my world, definitely plays a part in why I was so scared.
Not to mention the silly little fact that if a car suddenly loses power, you can generally coast to the side of the road, come to a stop, and get out to troubleshoot. If an airplane loses power, you’ve got however long it takes to fall 13,000 feet before you can kiss your ass goodbye. That definitely doesn’t help when a frightened brain is concocting worst-case scenarios.
Thankfully, that fear of flying seems to be lessening. My flights down to Memphis for my brother’s wedding weren’t nearly as nervewracking as other flights have been, and I didn’t even need the Sominex for the return leg of the trip. I won’t say I’m entirely over the fear — there were definitely some nervous moments — but it wasn’t anywhere near as strong as it had been in the recent past.
I’m actually somewhat curious (though not very, really) if dad was using some of his psychology techniques to subject me to “immersion therapy”, as I went from a 737 (or some other “normal” sized airliner) for the Seattle to Cincinnati flight, to a little 50-seater twin-engine for the Cincinnati to Memphis flight…and then going back from Memphis to Cincinnati ended up on a 32-seater! Considering that each plane was getting successively smaller, I was really starting to wonder if a Piper Cub could make the Cincinnati to Seattle leg of the flight. Thankfully, though, I was back on a 737 (or some other “normal” sized airliner) for that leg.
Anyway, all this boils down to is that just because you know you are safe in a given vehicle or situation doesn’t mean that you’re going to be comfortable. I knew my fear of flying was ridiculous. Unfortunately, I spent about three years powerless to do anything about it.
Of course, all this doesn’t keep me from sharing in the belief that SUVs are ridiculously stupid, overpowered, underprotected, gas-guzzling, ugly, pointless vehicles that should be banned for anyone not living down at least fifteen miles of unpaved road.