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The Amazing Race 2, Episode 2 (13 March 2002)

Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) - Foz do IguaƧu (Brazil) - Puerto Iguazu (Argentina)

All this, and people are worried about airline safety?

Hanging over “The Amazing Race 2”, after the events of 11 September 2001, was a cloud of fear — certainly in the minds of the producers, and perhaps of contestants and viewers — of air travel and terrorism.

So, in this week’s second episode of the reality-TV race around the world, the producers played it “safe”: the flying was limited to short hang glider rides. And the racers had to cover the 1200 air kilometers (750 air miles) from Rio de Janeiro to Foz do Iguaçu (Iguacu Falls) by bus instead, a 22-hour ride that was by far the longest overland journey we’ve seen yet in either season of The Amazing Race.

So was ground transportation safer than flying would have been? Consider how the first major injury of the race occurred: a taxi ran over identical-twin Shola’s foot with its wheel. I felt his pain. Some years ago, I had my foot run over by the wheel of a car (a hit-and-run Lincoln Continental, to be precise) after another car had cut off my bicycle, crashing and totaling the bike and throwing me into the road in front of passing traffic. No bones were broken, to my surprise, but my foot hurt like hell for months from internal bruising. I expect Shola will tough it out, but he’s one racer who won’t have much fun on the rest of the route without a lot of painkillers from the CBS medical support team.

Later on, two of the four (luxury express) buses that the different teams of racers took from Rio to Foz do Iguaçu broke down along the way. One blew an engine (bad, but not dangerous, as it didn’t completely lose power or control). One blew a tire on a narrow, high-speed two-lane highway with soft dirt shoulders (very dangerous, but luckily it made it to a stop, mostly out of the way out of traffic, without veering into the ditch or rolling over).

Most people think of the risks of travel in terms of exotic illnesses, flight safety, and terrorism. Typically, travellers’ concerns for a safe trip manifest themselves in three questions: “Is this a safe airline?,” “What shots are required for this country?,” and “Is there a government advisory about terrorism in this country?”

Statistically speaking, however, these questions say more about travellers’ fears than about the actual dangers of travel. Travel by land or water is far more dangerous than travel by air; serious injury — most often from road accidents — is much more likely than serious illness; most violent crime against travellers is economic, with no obvious political content and no relation to terrorism; hygiene and behavior have more effect on travel health than do inoculations; and government advisories are a poorer indication of the risk of violence than daily newspapers.

As I’ve said before (see my article on Travel Safety and Civil Liberties: Fear vs. Danger), there’s often little correlation between the real hazards of travel and most people are afraid of. The racers, for example, were afraid of rappelling and hang-gliding off the cliffs above Rio’s beaches. Those may have been scary things indeed, but they weren’t nearly so dangerous, statistically speaking, as the long-distance bus ride. And where one of them got hurt was getting out of a taxi.

I realize, of course, that fear is not a rational phenomenon. Nothing I could say, and no amount of evidence I could produce, would allay some people’s fear of flying. But choosing an airline they think of as safer is unlikely to allay their fears either, and driving rather than flying will only increase their risk of injury or death.

Knowing that your fears are unsupported by risk statistics is unlikely to make you unafraid. But if you know that your fear is unfounded (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) at least you can try to deal with your fear — fear of flying, fear of the unknown, fear of whatever — as a phenomenon in itself, freeing you to try to figure out and confront the real causes of your fear.

Road travel and, to the extent that you use it, water travel outside the First World is likely to be the most dangerous part of your trip. Road accidents are the principal cause of injury and death to travellers abroad. “An estimated quarter of a million people worldwide die in automobile accidents each year,” according to the Worldwatch Institute — many, many times more people than were killed on September 11th. Both the USA military and the Peace Corps consistently report that the most frequent causes of death and injury for their personnel abroad are motor vehicle accidents.

Motor vehicles are the leading cause of accidental death even in the USA, where we have some of the world’s best roads and safest and slowest highway drivers. Bus and car crashes are frighteningly common in the Second, Third, and Fourth Worlds, where roads and vehicles alike are in much poorer condition than in the First World. “Developing countries… have fatality rates per vehicle mile up to 20 times higher than industrialized countries,” the Worldwatch Institute estimates.

One newspaper editor in the USA told me that they got in the habit of using stories of Third-World road crashes for filler at the bottom of columns, just because they were so common on the wire-service feed. On any given day, they could count on finding a current story about a lot of people getting killed in a crash. “Didn’t a bus just run off the road somewhere?” became shorthand in the newsroom for, “I need a paragraph to complete this page.”

Trains are everywhere significantly safer than any road vehicle. I haven’t been able to find comprehensive world statistics on train and bus safety, but in the USA the automobile accident rate per passenger-kilometer (or passenger-mile) is eight times that of Amtrak trains.

Boats, especially smaller ferries across open ocean or flooded rivers, are at least as dangerous, per passenger-kilometer, as are cars and buses. Ships and ferries are less of a factor in overall travel safety only because most people take them only for short distances, where there is no alternative. Most ferries and ships that sink or capsize either were overloaded and too low in the water, or were traveling in flood or storm conditions for which they were unfit or unprepared. Use common sense. Take a critical look at the ship or boat, and the conditions, before you board. If you are chartering a boat, try to get a sense of the captain’s competence. Don’t take it for granted that ships or their captains are licensed, regulated, or inspected by the government, or that any of these things proves they are safe.

It may not reassure you about safety in the air, but as nearly as I can determine you are more likely to be killed driving to or from the airport (even on the safest roads) than on any given flight, even on the least safe airline. If you want to play it safe, fly. If you don’t fly, take a train if there is one. Locals, and even many guidebooks, often recommend buses as faster, more frequent, and more direct than trains. Rarely do they mention how much safer trains are than buses, which only becomes more true the poorer the country.

Road accidents are the most common reason for long-term travellers to cut their trips short and come home early. So far as I know, none of my clients has ever been in a plane crash; a couple of times a year, I hear of one who’s been seriously hurt in a road crash. And this in spite of the fact that most of my clients travel five or 10 times as far by air as they do by land.

Given that most of the danger of travel is in surface transportation, and that most independent travellers choose to travel mainly by bus or train, flying more and choosing trains rather than buses may be the two simple choices you can make that will most increase your chances of surviving your trip.

I don’t necessarily recommend that you fly whenever possible. Traveling around the world involves, of necessity, taking some risks. And there are many other factors than safety to consider. If the price is the same and I have the time, I almost always take a train: I see more, meet more diverse people, and eat better food. Trains are generally more comfortable and, in much of the world, more reliable. Given the need for early check-in and the likelihood of delays and cancellations of flights, trains are often as fast as planes for covering distances of up to 1,000 km (600 miles): an all-day journey whether by air or rail.

Air travel is safe. Air travel safety is, or should be, a nonissue, except to the extent that it influences you to fly rather than to use other means of transportation.

There are differences—proportionately significant ones—between the safety of different airlines. But so little of the overall risk of travel is in air travel in the first place that the choice between the most and least dangerous airline in the world will have a negligible effect on your chances of surviving your trip. Your time in the air is the safest part of your trip, and the part you should worry about least. Relax and enjoy it. Anywhere in the world, how you get to the airport has more effect on your safety than which airline you fly on. On scheduled jet flights, it makes no sense to worry, on grounds of safety, about which airline or type of airplane you take, where you sit, or other similar issues. Perhaps the least rational thing to do about airline safety is to choose to travel by land or water instead of flying.

If air travel safety is (or should be) a nonissue, fear of flying is, unfortunately, an all-too-real issue for many people. I can offer only limited advice, but I’ll try to offer a few observations on the fears that many of my clients and fellow travellers have described, in the hope that this will help some of you come to terms with your fear of flying.

The first step in dealing with fear of flying is recognizing that the issue is your fear, not actual safety. Fear is real, as is the pain and anxiety it causes, and you may feel you need to do certain things when you fly, such as choosing certain airlines or airplanes, in order to feel comfortable before or during the flight. But in the long run, pandering to your fear will not eliminate it. Only confronting your fear itself will enable you to understand, overcome, or cure yourself of it.

Most people in First World jet-age societies realize that people who are too afraid ever to get on an airplane have a problem, and that their problem lies in their fear and not in airplanes. Many people who are less severely afraid of flying do not even realize that their fears are irrational or inappropriate. On the contrary, mild or moderate fear of flying may be a rational response to a societal myth (albeit a false myth) more than a consciously irrational phobia.

Unfortunately, the news media — supposed guardians of truth — reinforce the myth that flying is unusually dangerous, and that the alternatives are less so. If 10 or 100 people are killed in an airplane crash, anywhere in the world, it is front-page world news. For that matter, even one death in an air crash, or an unscheduled landing in which no one is hurt, is often major news in the USA. There is never a front-page headline, much less one every day, to remind us that 100 people died on USA roads and 1,000 on roads around the world yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Whatever the reasons, it seems clear that our society manifests not so much an individual as a collective social phobia about flight. Perhaps it is a mechanism to mask our even more extreme collective social denial of the risks of the road. Too much would have to change in the infrastructure of USA society, or Americans would have to go about their daily affairs in too much fear, if we were to acknowledge how dangerous are the cars that we depend on.

For some people, simply learning how little factual basis there is for fear of flying may be sufficient to reduce or eliminate their fear. For people who want assistance, particularly those with extreme fear (especially those who are unable to bring themselves to fly at all), several airlines and other organizations, such as the volunteer Fear of Flying Clinic at San Francisco International Airport, offer classes in overcoming fear of flying. These are usually one- or two-day courses that include counseling, group discussions, exercises in relaxation and preparation, flight simulations, and finally a short graduation flight on a plane chartered just for the students and the teachers who accompany them to provide in-flight encouragement and support.

Have a safe, relaxed, enjoyable trip. And keep your feet out from under the wheels of the automobiles!

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