Slightly Off Center

Slightly Off Center: You Bet Your Life

By Dennis Hinkamp

Reading website news articles has become the new car crash you can’t take your eyes off of.
by Dennis Hinkamp

Reading website news articles, complete with commentary, has become the new car crash you can’t take your eyes off of. At least that was the case for me over the holidays, when too much time off and prurient interest led me down the voyeuristic path of reading all the stories and comments about this winter’s early avalanche deaths.

Gauging from the comments, you could come to these conclusions: 1) The snowmobilers were testosterone-driven yahoos who disregarded repeated avalanche warnings and their deaths represent natural culling. 2) The skiers died doing what they love.

We obviously have a difficult time dealing with death and risk; attitudes like those are how we “deal.” But we all take risks every day. Some can lead to quick death; some imperceptibly slow.

My father died watching TV in his favorite chair. He probably died younger than he should have because he ate too much of the wrong stuff and exercised not at all. I’m pretty sure he died doing what he loved even though that won’t make any headlines. It’s absolutely no consolation, but he probably got a lot more years of enjoyment out of his risky behavior than either the risky snowmobilers or skiers.

Health warnings are just as clear as avalanche warnings, yet millions of people ignore them. The only difference between my father and the snowmobilers and skiers is that his was a slow, risky activity that led to death while theirs was quick and decisive.

Many of the comments said the snowmobilers knew there was a high level of avalanche danger, yet they went out there anyway, thus they “deserved” their fate.

There are a few confounding points to remember about risk.

First, what seems stupid to you may be stupid only to you. People make their own choices about risk. These may not be the choices you would make, but they are logical to them. There are probably more than 100 books about mountain climbing-related deaths yet people keep climbing Everest and other summits. Every year it is well publicized that the most road fatalities happen between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day; yet people keep traveling. It’s simple to sit behind our computers and pass judgment on newspaper comment boxes, but risk is complex.

Secondly, statistics aren’t a 100% reliable way to make decisions about risk. Given hindsight, all accidents are 100% avoidable, but the risk itself is not 100%. Not everyone on those ski and snowmobile trips died; as long as the chance of death is not 100%, people will keep taking these risks.

Lastly, your percentage chance of death is not the same as your percentage of death. The chance of becoming a shark snack the minute you step into the ocean may only be one in three million, but if you do get munched, it will likely be more than one three millionth of your body. You, in fact, will likely be 100% dead.

Risk is 50% statistics, 50% beliefs and 50% random Sword of Damocles. I know that doesn’t add up; risk never does.

Dennis Hinkamp urges you all to stay inside but to simultaneously avoid household accidents.

This article was originally published on January 30, 2009.