Risk and disaster threshold

In all the years I have traveled, I have taken planes far more often than I have taken boats.  Yet, I have always believed that boats are safer than planes. If a boat catches fire, or its engine stalls, there is usually time enough to move to a safe area, or to get on a life boat and bail out before the vessel sinks. These options are not available to passengers strapped to their seats inside an aircraft.  Airplane passengers are shown how to put on life vests in the “unlikely event” of a crash landing on water, or how to breathe through oxygen masks if there should be a drastic change in cabin pressure.  They are told where the exits are, and how the doors may be opened.  But no air line provides its passengers with parachutes.

Perhaps most people think exactly the way I do; we expect ships to be safer than planes.  That is why the disasters that shock us most — the ones we cannot forget — are those involving the sinking of boats rather than the crashing of airplanes.  This has less do with the number of people who perish in such disasters than with our general psychological unpreparedness for the risks of sea travel.

The other night, my wife and I were in a Philippine Air Lines evening flight from Davao to Manila.  I was looking at the grim news photos of the tragic sinking of the Sulpicio Lines’ “Princess of the Stars.”  Just then, the “fasten seatbelt” sign flashed, and we were told that we would be experiencing some air turbulence.  I froze momentarily and instinctively I glanced at the exit doors two rows behind our seats.

I usually don’t read or pay much attention to safety instructions unless I am seated in an exit row.  But on this flight I became very conscious of the safety features of the aircraft, and I began to imagine how we would make our way to the emergency exits if the lights went out and there was a need to immediately leave the plane.  The morbid thought of the plane suddenly losing power in mid-air and crashlanding in the ocean haunted me as I struggled to take a nap.  I pictured the water slowly seeping into the pressurized aircraft, and wondered what would happen if someone opened the emergency exit doors.  How easy would it be to swim through that narrow hole while everyone else in their inflated life vests groped in the dark for the way out? I made up my mind that it wasn’t going to be easy at all, even assuming that the plane would not break into pieces as soon as it crashed into the water.

If we always stopped to reflect on the risks we take in our daily lives, we would probably be paralyzed.  We would be asking if the risk is worth taking, or whether we have weighed the alternatives. To live like this is irrational.  Thus, our default mode is one of trust, except in those rare instances when we find ourselves trying out something extraordinary – like bungee-jumping or skydiving.

If risky behavior is part of your way of life, you have no choice but to learn to integrate risk-reduction into your daily routine.  When I resumed riding motorcycles in 2001, after a gap of more than 20 years, I realized that taking out an accident insurance for myself and my bikes would not minimize the risks of a disastrous accident.  More important than all the insurance in the world was a reliable helmet. Moreover, each time I rode my bike, I made sure I was dressed for a fall no matter how close my destination was.  I decided early on that if I could not stay away from motorcycles, I should learn how to ride and handle one safely.

This sharp consciousness of risk is not something that drivers of fourwheeled vehicles normally build into their driving habits.  Long after seatbelts became obligatory in cars, Filipino drivers refused to use them.  They were not impressed by the high incidence of fatal accidents involving drivers and passengers unprotected by seatbelts. What finally got them into the seatbelt habit were not the statistics but the stiff fines that awaited violators of the seatbelt law.

Insensitivity to risk may perhaps be seen as the nervous system’s way of keeping focused and minimizing distractions.  If you’re on holiday, you would not want to spend your time thinking of the dangers that lurk around you.  Therefore, somebody else has to do it for you.  As dissonant as they may be to the mood of relaxation that an airline or a ship may wish to foster, it is the carrier’s unpleasant task to constantly bring up these precautionary messages.  Indeed, in international passenger ships, everyone, without exception, is required to file out and participate in a collective drill for emergencies. You are asked to proceed to a pre-assigned section of the ship’s deck, you put on a life vest and stand in formation.  You are instructed on how get into a life boat should the need arise.   In every cabin, you find a map of the major exits and simple instructions on what to do in an emergency.

The improbable does not happen, and you emerge from the trip without ever finding any actual need for this kind of drill or information.  And yet the crew of every passenger boat will do it over and over, and will not compromise on these necessary routines. Regulatory bodies strictly monitor compliance with the safety standards, whose utility is tested only in the unlikely event of an emergency at sea.

We never seem to draw any lessons from these disasters.  Most of our boats are as unsafe and as inadequately equipped to handle large volumes of passengers as ever.  Their owners know this, but they would rather not tell anybody of the risks.  In a society marked by chronic insecurity, the public’s disaster threshold is high.  And so this latest tragedy will soon be forgotten.

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