Death comes for all of us.
But the question of “when”—and perhaps “how”—death comes is of interest to most of us who want to live relatively fruitful lives. Every day we have to weigh the risks of our activities; especially how likely they are to kill us.
To that end, I’ll show you statistics on how likely different activities are to cause death. The most useful risk measurement tool I could find is called “Micromort”. The definition of a micromort was invented by Stanford professor Ronald A. Howard in 1979 and is simple: the probability of dying is one in a million.
Using micromorts, we can compare how dangerous all types of human behavior are: from birth to driving to skydiving and climbing Mount Everest.
I first learned about the micromort idea through my COVID-19 work – the New York Times published an article back in May 2020 about COVID micromort figures comparing recent phenomena to other risky activities we know about have a better idea.
For this table, I tried to compile every data point into micromorts that I could find. Most of this data comes from the book by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter The Norm Chronicles: Tales and Figures of Danger and Death. Other websites I use, such as micromorts.rip, collect data from other sources. The COVID-19 data is from the CDC as of January 2022. Obviously, these are all averages: some vehicle types are safer than others, some earthquakes are deadly and others are mild, and so on.
Without further ado, my full list of activities, sorted from most dangerous to least dangerous:
Let’s look at the details of some of these numbers.
For hazard awareness
Humans are generally not good at recognizing the relative danger of different activities.
In 2018, Australian psychologists Hannah AD Keage and Tobias Loetscher published a simple study on this topic: They asked 284 participants to rate 20 different activities on a scale from 0 to 1000, ranging from “very low risk of death” to “very high risk of death”. . .” Topics varied in terms of safety, ranging from hiking 27 miles (1 micromort) to climbing Mount Everest (37,932 micromorts).
And yes, on average, people said climbing Everest was more dangerous than a 27-mile trek — but only about nine times riskier. In reality, climbing Everest is about 38,000 times more risky than walking the distance. Remarkably, some respondents even said the trek was more dangerous than climbing Everest.
The range of responses was consistently very broad: driving a car, riding a motorcycle, rock climbing, kite flying, anesthesia, skydiving, having a baby, base jumping, working in a coal mine, working in commercial fishing, and even climbing Everest—all received answers that were different The entire spectrum ranges from “very low risk of death” to “very high risk of death”.
People with stronger “numerical skills” (assessed by a number-line test) performed better on the risk assessment – regular readers of this column would certainly give a good rating. If someone had done an activity before, they tended to rate it as less deadly. Interestingly, older people tended to rate activities as less risky. Gender, optimism, and self-reported risk tolerance did not appear to affect performance.
On a journey
There is a fairly clear hierarchy of travel hazards.
Commercial air travel is the least dangerous, followed by train travel. If you travel thousands of miles on any mode of transportation in the United States, there is only one extra micromort, one extra chance of dying, which is one in a million. Driving about 240 miles is another one in a million chance; But because Americans tend to drive so much, the odds of dying in any given year are about 100 micromorts. Driving a trailer truck is significantly more dangerous than driving a car.
Then walking and cycling are more dangerous as there are fatalities in accidents of all kinds. In general, they are about nine times more likely to be fatal than driving the same distance. But they are not as likely to result in your death as traveling on a light (non-commercial) airplane or on a motorcycle, where even standard travel means multiple micromortalities in your lifetime.
I’ve been pondering whether or not to include the COVID-19 numbers in the table above. Unfortunately, the inclusion of COVID data now turns off a significant portion of the audience, no matter how level-headed your COVID coverage was.
But man, contracting COVID is pretty dangerous — especially when you’re old and unvaccinated. The good news is that vaccination really helps: the risk of dying from COVID if you are vaccinated and vaccinated is an average of 48 micromorts if you are between 18 and 49 years old, 516 micromorts between the ages of 50 and 64 6,023 micromorts if you are 65 years of age or older. This means that those who have had at least three vaccinations are about four to ten times less likely to die than those who have not received any vaccinations. Meanwhile, the risk of vaccination, even the relatively unfavorable Astrazeneca vaccine, is quite low.
How dangerous drugs are Really depends on the drug of your choice.
People overdose on heroin ridiculously often. For an average heroin user, the risk of accidental overdose or poisoning from heroin use is 9,100 micromorts per year — or as much as about 1,300 skydives. Cocaine (and crack) overdoses are about a third as common per user.
But honestly, some illegal drugs are surprisingly safe. For example, deaths from cannabis are extremely rare.
Ecstasy (or MDMA) is also fairly safe. Funnily enough, the Chair of the UK Advisory Board on Substance Abuse, Professor David Nutt, wrote a column in 2009 comparing the dangers of ecstasy to ‘equasy’ – the addiction to horse riding – arguing that they were comparatively dangerous. Our statistics show that horseback riding is significantly less dangerous, not counting the danger that comes with just owning a horse.
Note that these statistics do not take into account harm caused to others by taking the medication. Driving under the influence and then dying or killing another person is generally considered a traffic death in the United States, not a drug-related death
• The most dangerous day of your life is the day you are born – until you are 92 years old. The first year of your life is the most dangerous year of your life – until you turn 55.
• Skydiving is significantly less dangerous than paragliding, which in turn is significantly less dangerous than BASE jumping.
• Caesarean sections are slightly more dangerous than natural births – although this finding is controversial, as sometimes dangerous birth complications result in mothers having a Caesarean section who otherwise would not. The figures above try to take this factor into account. Whether they succeeded 100% in this is debatable.
• The probability that one child dies in a pedestrian accident each year is about as likely as the average adult is murdered at work in an average year—although in some professions, such as police and law enforcement, it is higher cab drivers, far more murders per capita than most.
• Today, working as a commercial logger or fisherman in the US is two to three times more dangerous than the risk of an average citizen being killed by conflict-related violence in Libya in 2015.
• Submersion (in the sea, when scuba diving) is about as dangerous as submersion (losing consciousness from medical anesthesia before an operation).
• Earthquakes are more likely to kill you than lightning, which are more likely to kill you than a falling asteroid, which is more likely to kill you than a shark. All of this is very unlikely.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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