Any time there's a deadly train accident or plane crash in the news, there are always people ready to point out that driving is actually a far, far more dangerous way to travel:
Statistically, this is true. But then why do train accidents and plane crashes seem so much scarier — so much more unnerving? Why does the risk of dying in a train or plane loom so much larger in our imaginations, even if the odds are technically lower?
Perhaps it's that more people are affected by any one particular train or plane crash, so it feels like a bigger deal. On Tuesday, an Amtrak passenger train headed to New York derailed near Philadelphia, killing six people and leaving 150 injured. That's a lot of people. No surprise it made headlines.
But the difference probably doesn't just come down to raw numbers. Five days before the Amtrak crash, an SUV collided with a minivan near Knoxville, Tennessee. That killed six people, including an infant and two children. That was also horrifying, but didn't make national news.
Or maybe it's that train accidents and plane crashes get more attention precisely because they're so rare. We see car accidents and wrecks all the time, so it's easier to become inured to them. A hulking train wreck is a more unusual — and unnerving — sight. Trains seem so big and solid and safe. It's an uncanny feeling to see that all go horribly wrong.
But an even more crucial factor is the feeling of control. Cars — and car crashes — seem like something well within our control. It's easy to think, "As long as I drive safely, I can avoid an accident." Objectively, this is false. People die in car accidents all the time, for reasons completely outside their control. But it feels avoidable. And we're great at overrating our own abilities.
By contrast, train accidents and plane crashes feel totally outside our grasp. You're seated inside a large, fast-moving hunk of metal and have absolutely no say over whether it makes it to its destination safely or not. If something goes wrong, you're utterly helpless as a passenger.
When I asked this question on Twitter, a great many people pointed to lack of control as the key factor:
@bradplumer Forced to reflect on lack of control when a passenger?— Peter Forbes (@PeterSForbes) May 13, 2015
@bradplumer And trains feel solid. We can imagine car accidents because we drive and make mistakes. A train has the scale to seem 'safe.'— Charles Fishman (@cfishman) May 13, 2015
@bradplumer you picture yourself. Car: most think, "I'm a good driver. Wouldn't happen to me." Train/plane: No control, so more terrifying— Alex Rinkus (@alexrinkus) May 13, 2015
@bradplumer most people (drivers) see car accidents every day.— Ruth Franklin (@ruth_franklin) May 13, 2015
@bradplumer Psychology. Trains are huge, terrifying machines, running through communities. Crashes/loss of control the stuff of nightmares.— John McQuaid (@johnmcquaid) May 13, 2015
As it turns out, there's a fair bit of research backing this up. In a 1987 review article in Science, psychologist Paul Slovic first pointed out that people are way more intolerant of risks they perceive to be outside of their control (along with risks that have potentially catastrophic consequences). A fair bit of follow-up research has confirmed this.
This helps explain why, for instance, many people opted to drive rather than fly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though it was an objectively riskier thing to do so. We're less afraid of doing something that feels within our control than not.
-- Here's an in-depth overview of research on risk perception, with all sorts of good insights. Studies have found, for instance, that we're less likely to worry about risks from disasters we perceive as "natural" compared with those we see as man-made.
-- Here's an in-depth breakdown by Sara Gorman of Slovic's classic 1987 paper on risk. David Ropeik has also done a ton of work on risk perception, here's a good earlier piece on why we see flying as riskier than car travel.