NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

November 28, 2001

Some people have been afraid to return to the malls and the skies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. One reason is that people tend to underestimate the probability of a common event occurring but overestimate the probability of a rare event, say experts.

What are the odds of dying on our next flight or next trip to a shopping mall?

• There are more than 40,000 malls in this country, and each is open about 75 hours per week.
• If a person shopped for two hours each week and terrorists were able to completely destroy one mall per week, the odds of dying in the attack would be approximately 1.5 million to 1.
• If terrorists destroyed "only" one mall each month, the odds would climb to one in 6 million.

If we assume that each week one commercial aircraft were hijacked and crashed, what are the odds that a person who goes on one trip per month would be in that plane?

• There are currently about 18,000 commercial flights a day, and if that person's trip has four separate legs, the odds against that person's being on a crashed plane are about 135,000 to 1.
• If there were only one hijacked plane per month, the odds would be about 540,000 to 1.

There are much more common threats to our health.

• The odds of dying in an automobile accident each year are about one in 7,000.
• The odds of dying from heart disease in any given year are one in 400 and of dying from cancer one in 600.

Thus, experts caution us to separate the probability that an event may occur in our country and the probability that it will occur to us as individuals.

Source: Michael L. Rothschild, "Terrorism and You -- The Real Odds," Washington Post, November 25, 2001.

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