There’s something particularly horrifying about a plane crash. The sudden death of a large number of helpless people, travelling by what is normally the world’s safest mode of commercial transport, inspires more public empathy and recrimination than your average tragedy.
So it was this month, when one of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 aircraft crashed in Ethiopia, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board, including 18 Canadians. This just five months after the same Boeing model suffered an apparently identical crash in the Java Sea, killing 189.
The response from global air safety officialdom was swift. Most countries grounded the planes, and Boeing has done the same. Hundreds of them now sit idle.
There is widespread agreement that this is the right response. Halting flights until regulators have figured out what happened is the prudent course of action. That grounding the jets wiped billions off Boeing’s stock value and inconvenienced travellers seems a small price to pay when lives could be at stake.
If only our calculus was always so clear.
It takes nothing away from the appalling fate of the Max 8 victims to note that, every year, thousands of people around the world die in less dramatic but equally avoidable ways. The response to the tragedy in Ethiopia has been spot on, but it has also highlighted the need to act just as urgently, and make similar tradeoffs, when tackling deadly catastrophes that move slower – or that we’ve come to view as normal.
Take the air we breathe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.2-million people die every year from the effects of air pollution. Read that again: More than four million. That’s the equivalent of dozens of jetliners plunging into the ocean, every day.
Yet even today, countries that have swung into action around airline safety are doing away with common-sense pollution rules that would save some of those lives.
U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, surprised some when he belatedly grounded the 737 Max line in the days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, despite personal appeals from Boeing’s CEO. Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
The rest of the time, Mr. Trump does things like scrapping clean-energy regulations and allowing coal-fired power plants to create more smog, a sop to industry that’s expected to cause as many as 1,400 premature deaths a year by 2030. That’s about seven Max 8s.
Of course, it’s not just the U.S. President choosing to quietly forfeit lives in the name of profit or expediency. Just about all humans are terrible at assessing risks that aren’t easy to visualize or relate to. That goes for even the most reasonable of humans – Canadians.
Consider that, for years, Toronto has accepted a steadily mounting number of pedestrian deaths as the cost of the apparently indispensable privilege of driving around really fast. Between 2011 and 2015, cars killed 163 Toronto pedestrians – about one mid-sized airplane’s worth of people. That was a 15-per-cent jump over the previous five years, according to a Globe and Mail analysis.
These deaths are a choice. They are not inevitable; they are a function of everything from urban planning to speed limits.
Stockholm has cut pedestrian fatalities by about a third since 2000 thanks to Sweden’s Vision Zero policy, which regulates traffic rules and the design of streets with the goal of reducing the deaths they cause.
In most North American cities, in contrast, many streets seem designed to maximize danger to those on foot. In Toronto, neighbourhoods like Scarborough are full of wide, high-speed arterial roads with few crosswalks. They were built that way, because people like getting to their destination quickly more than they like not killing a grandmother forced to jaywalk across six lanes of fast-moving traffic.
The good news: Sometimes the terrible, hidden costs of our choices come to light, forcing us to reconsider those deadly tradeoffs. For example, after years of lobbying and ineffectual policies, Toronto Mayor John Tory signalled last week that he’d be open to road-safety measures that would have more teeth. It’s about time.
After the Boeing crash, the world snapped to attention and responded within days. Squint even a little, though, and you’ll notice jetliner-sized disasters all around. Wouldn’t it be nice if we took them all as seriously as a plane crash?