Monday, April 28, 2014

What Next to Worry About?

It’s a habit of the news media and the government to try to raise concern about some particular issue by presenting it as a crisis or immanent danger.  They are forever telling us what can harm us or our families so we react by voting the right way, buying the right products, backing the right groups or just staying tuned for the full story.  It is important for us as consumers and citizens to be wary, especially when our concern may be far out of proportion with reality.  A few current news items serve as examples.

First from the government:  “Deborah Hersman, departing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Monday that ‘one of her great disappointments’ was that child-safety seats aren't required on planes for young children.”  There are several problems with this idea.  Parents may be discouraged from flying with babies, if they would be required to buy a seat as opposed to lap-sitting, driving instead, a far more dangerous choice.  Also, the question remains:  who is responsible for providing the safety seats and checking that they are of an approved design?  The most important issue is that this crusade of hers stems from a single incident in 1989 in Sioux City, IA.  Another article cites one other incident in 1994 in Charlotte.  This is hardly a trend.  Over the past 10 years, US domestic airline scheduled flights have had only about 150 passenger fatalities and 50 passenger injuries for people of all ages (Source:  NTSB statistical tables).

How big of a problem is this?  Consider by contrast that 66 kids are hurt every day in incidents involving shopping carts!  Problems are often as big as the advocates choose to make them regardless of the data.

Turning now to the auto industry, backup cameras and recalls are top stories.  Backup cameras will be required in all new cars by May 2018 at a cost of $140 per car to save an estimated 59 to 69 lives out of a total of “nearly 210 backover deaths each year.  About one third of these involve children run over by their own parents.  But if 16 million cars are sold each year, that works out to about $35 million to save each life.  How does that compare to $35 million spent on another safety or health measure?  Does anyone even ask these questions?

Likewise GM, and eventually GM's customers, will spend $250 million (plus inconvenience to millions of GM owners) to repair defects possibly related to 13 deaths.  
Finally, what about government funding of research to cure diseases?  Is there any mechanism to ensure funding is proportional to the real size of the problem?  Research estimates for 2013 are:
$5.4 billion for cancer (Some cancers get additional funding, for example $711 million, for breast cancer)
$3 billion for HIV/AIDS,
$1.66 billion for heart disease,
$1.1 billion for diabetes,
$529 million for Alzheimer's

By comparison, based on CDC data, mortality by disease in the US (2010 final data) includes: 
Heart disease (597,689),
Cancer (574,743),
Chronic lower respiratory diseases (138,080),
Stroke (129,476),
Alzheimer's disease (83,494),
Diabetes (69,071),
HIV/AIDS (19,343*)
* “Deaths of persons with a diagnosed HIV infection may be due to any cause.”

I guess the answer is that we worry about whatever we are told to worry about.  Whoever beats the loudest drum, has the most popular platform or has the most influential friends goes to the top of the list (and to the front page).  Charm and hype always trump perspective and critical thinking – it’s the American way.

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