When road accidents claim many more lives than terrorist acts, why is the perceived threat of al-Qaeda so great? asks John Adams
On an average day in Britain, nine people die and more than 800 are injured in road accidents. The mangled metal, the pain of the victims and the grief of families and friends, one might suppose, are not dissimilar to that produced by the London bombings of July 7. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the eight most powerful men in the world, assembled for the G8 meeting in Gleneagles, stood shoulder to shoulder before the world's television cameras as Tony Blair proclaimed their solidarity, outrage and defiance. In the days that followed, the Government and the media choreographed the nation's grief, anger and resolution. One week on, millions stood in silence to commemorate the events, and tens of thousands assembled in Trafalgar Square.
Measured in terms of life and limb, though, 7/7 represented the equivalent of six days of death on our roads. But tens of thousands do not gather weekly in Trafalgar Square to demonstrate collective concern. The 191 people killed by the Madrid bombers on March 11, 2004, were equivalent to the number killed in road accidents in Spain every 12 or 13 days. The latter tragedies merit only a few column inches in the local press. The former evoked three days of national mourning in Spain and a three-minute silence all over Europe.
During the 25 "busiest" years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, twice as many people died in road accidents as were killed by terrorists. Yet most people in England have never seen a report on television or in the press about those accidental deaths.
In the first half of October 2002, two people were killed every day in Washington and its suburbs. They were cut down suddenly and without warning by a person they had never met. There was no discernible pattern in age, sex or ethnicity among the victims. Their families and friends grieved, but otherwise their fates attracted virtually no media attention. They were victims of road accidents. Over the same period, someone was killed every other day by the Washington Sniper. Again there was no discernible pattern among victims. But their fates attracted massive media coverage around the world and led, far beyond the vicinity of their occurrence, to extraordinary changes in behaviour -ranging from a massive policing operation to people jogging to their cars in zigzag patterns as they carried their shopping across supermarket car parks.
Worldwide, 23 Americans were killed by acts of terrorism in 2003. No terrorist attacks against the US homeland were reported in 2004. In each of these years, about 42,000 people were killed on American highways. And yet the resources devoted to countering the terrorist threat continue to increase and the revocation of traditional civil liberties continues apace.
Almost everywhere one might travel in the world outside Baghdad, the risk of being killed in a road accident greatly exceeds the risk of being killed by a terrorist. Last year, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank estimated that more than 1.2 million people were killed in road accidents - a daily average that exceeds the number of victims of 9/11.
So why is it that terrorism is rated such a high threat? The answer is: what matters is what kills you. When one takes "pure" voluntary risks, such as bungee jumping, the risk itself, with the associated challenge and rush of adrenaline, is the reward. Most climbers on Mount Everest know that their ascent is dangerous, but they willingly take their chances. With a voluntary, self-controlled "applied" risk, such as driving, the reward is getting from A to B. The sense of control that drivers have over their fates appears to encourage a high level of tolerance of the risks involved.
Cycling from A to B involves a diminished sense of control over one's fate. This sense is supported by statistics that show that a cyclist is 14 times more likely to die per kilometre travelled than someone driving a car. This is a good example of the importance of distinguishing between relative and absolute risk. The absolute risk, although 14 times greater than the relative risk, is still small - one fatality per 25 million kilometres cycled; not even Lance Armstrong, the seven-times winner of Tour de France, could begin to cover that sort of distance in a lifetime. And numerous studies have shown that the extra relative risk is more than offset by the health benefits - regular cyclists live longer.
While people may voluntarily board planes, buses and trains, the popular reaction to public transport accidents is that people demand a higher standard of safety in circumstances in which they voluntarily hand control over to pilots or drivers.
Risks imposed by nature - such as those endured by people living on the San Andreas Fault - or impersonal economic forces - such as the vicissitudes of the global economy - are placed on the middle of the scale. Reactions vary widely. Such risks are responded to fatalistically unless or until the threat appears imminent.
Imposed risks are less tolerated. Consider mobile phones. The risk associated with handsets is either non-existent or very small, and the risk associated with base stations, measured by radiation dose, is orders of magnitude less. Yet billions of people all round the world take the voluntary risk, and almost all opposition is focused on the base stations, which are seen as impositions. The radiation dose received from the handset increases with distance from the base station. So, successful campaigns against base stations increase the average distance between station and handset, boosting radiation doses for hand-set users. The base station risk, if it exists, might be labelled a benignly imposed risk; no one supposes that phone companies wish to murder those near their masts.
Less tolerated are risks imposed by those perceived as being motivated by greed. In Europe, big biotechnology companies are routinely denounced by environmentalist opponents for being more concerned with profits than with the welfare of the environment or the consumers of its products.
People are least tolerant of malignly imposed risks - crimes ranging from mugging to rape and murder. In most countries the number of deaths on the road far exceeds that of murders, but far more people are sent to jail for murder than for causing death by dangerous driving.
Which brings us to terrorism and al-Qaeda. How do we account for the worldwide outpourings of grief over its victims, whose numbers are dwarfed by those of other causes of violent death?
Up to this point, I have discussed individual responses to a range of risks. Terrorism targets governments. Terrorists pose a threat not just to individuals but to social order - and to those who purport to maintain it.
Murderers and careless drivers are not seen as challenges to the ability of a government to govern.
And governments have multitudes of press officers and experts to amplify their anxieties. Leading the way is the US Department of Homeland Security.
On the toolbar of my internet browser I now have an icon provided by it, which is set at amber: Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks. The US Department of Justice proclaims that the Patriot Act, which after 9/11 gave the Government unprecedented power to investigate terror suspects, "has played a key part in a number of successful operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America and our way of life".
Others see the act itself as the more significant threat to the American way of life. The American Civil Liberties Union observes: "Many parts of this sweeping legislation take away checks on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect."
Until recently, terrorists could be relied on to choose iconic targets, such as the World Trade Centre. But these targets have been "hardened". The Houses of Parliament in London now have sophisticated screening of entrants and barriers to prevent car and lorry bombers getting near. So terrorists have begun conferring iconic status on more mundane targets such as bars in Bali, commuter trains in Spain and buses in London.
The terrorist seeks to spread the idea that nowhere is safe, and this makes the selection of victims more random - as with road accidents. If acts of terror continue to become more widely dispersed, might we become more fatalistic about them? Might we begin to treat them with the same indifference with which, as a society, we treat road accidents? If asked to pronounce on the risk of terrorist incidents compared with road accidents, an actuary would conclude that everywhere is very safe.
Putting the threat of terrorism into a context with which most people feel less anxious might weaken popular support for the draconian security measures now proposed and diminish the paranoia that transforms a Brazilian into an Asian and the wearing of a heavy jacket in July into a capital offence.
It might also foster a reassessment of the equanimity with which we accept the daily toll of death on our roads.
John Adams is emeritus professor of geography at University College London.
A full version of this article can be found at www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk