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Risk Versus Dread: Implications for Planners; or Let's Not Let The Terrorists Win

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance– President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

This being the decade anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, it seems a good time to consider how our society responds to such threats, and what planners can do to maximize safety.

Todd Litman | September 11, 2011, 7am PDT
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"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance" – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

This being the decade anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, it seems a good time to consider how our society responds to such threats, and what planners can do to maximize safety.

For this analysis it is important to understand the difference between risk and dread. Risk refers to a quantifiable danger. Dread refers to excessive fear of a particular risk. Dread often causes people to respond irrationally. To the degree that terrorists cause people to over-react in ways that results in economic and social disruptions they are successful in their objectives. 

Researchers have identified factors that tend to cause dread. People often dread new and dramatic risks which they consider outside their control, and are particularly horrified by intentional rather than accidental harm. Terrorist attacks fit the dread profile. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that terrorism tends to instill more fear than justified rationally. That is exactly what terrorists intend.

For example, terrorist attacks caused numerous policy changes, including airport security and other privacy invasions, and various wars and other international realignments, all justified to reduce domestic risk. Much of these policies are difficult to justify rationally, that is, based on the costs per life saved compared with other security, safety and health improvement strategies. The September 11 terrorist attacks where a terrible event, but their death toll was less than half of the number of Americans killed in wars justified to reduce terrorism, or only about a normal month's worth of U.S. traffic fatalities. One of the traffic safety strategies I've researched, Pay-As-You-Drive vehicle insurance, is predicted to save more than 3,000 lives annually and provide many other benefits, with small implementation costs, yet not a single jurisdiction has implemented it as a traffic safety strategy, which is irrational.

News media and informal information networks tend to create a self-reinforcing cycle that stimulates dread: they focus on dramatic hazards and so reinforce the incorrect idea that these are major risks. For example, a few years ago, three people were killed in a Toronto subway crash, and the same week four teenagers were killed in a car crash near our home on Vancouver Island. Our news media carried lots of information about the subway crash, creating dread of public transit travel, but car crashes are so common that the four deaths were not mentioned in Toronto's news. Similarly, news media and rumors exaggerate the risks of child kidnapping, murder by strangers, terrorist attacks, transit travel, urban assaults, and recently, "smart" electric power meters. As a result, society overreacts to these risks and fails to effectively address more serious but common dangers. This is not to suggest that such risks should be ignored. Suitable action is justified to protect people's safety and sense of security, and to bring kidnappers and terrorists to justice. But it is important for individuals and public officials to take all risks into account and avoid overreacting to certain risks in ways that increase overall danger.

Terrorism ia actually a much smaller risk than other common dangers such as traffic crashes:

  • The 191 people killed 11th March 2004 by Madrid bombers were equivalent to about 12 or 13 days of normal traffic deaths in Spain.
  • On an average day nine people die and over 800 are injured in British road accidents. The 7 July 2005 London terrorist deaths represent about six days of normal traffic fatalities.
  • During the 25 worst years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, twice as many people died there in road accidents as were killed by terrorists.
  • In Israel, the annual road traffic death toll has been two or three times higher than civilian deaths by Palestinian terrorists during the violent years of 2000 through 2003.
  • Wilson and Thomson (2005) calculated that in 29 OECD countries for which suitable data were available, the annual road injury deaths were approximately 390 times that from international terrorism. The ratio of road to terrorism deaths averaged over 10 years was lowest for the United States at 142 times.


Dread is often a barrier to efficient transport and healthier communities. For example, many parents fear letting their children walk or bicycle to school or other destinations due to exaggerated fears of stranger kidnapping. That risk is actually tiny, but parents feel dread because it gets so much media attention.

Similarly, a common objection to public transport travel is exaggerated fear of assaults and crashes. Public transport is really extremely safe, with a casualty rate less than one-tenth that of automobile travel per passenger mile. Even including terrorist attacks and other crimes against transit passengers, transit is far safer than private vehicle travel. Yes, transit passengers are exposed to crime risk, particularly while waiting for a bus or train during off-peak periods, but motorists are exposed to road rage which actually causes more deaths during an average year than transit passenger deaths.

Shifts from public transit to automobile travel increase overall risk. If public transit had the same fatality rate per passenger-mile as automobile travel there would have been 104 more deaths in London, 300 in the U.K., and 148 in the U.S. in 2003. In addition, public transit provides other health benefits, by reducing air pollution, and increasing physical exercise since most transit trips involve walking or cycling links. Similarly, analysis by Gigerenzer (2004) and Sivak and Flannagan (2004) indicate that in the three months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, shifts from air to automobile travel caused several hundred additional roadway traffic fatalities. Since air travel is safer per mile than driving, particularly on rural roads, total travel deaths increased. Had these trends continued for more than a year, the additional deaths would have exceeded the September 11 terrorist deaths.

After a high-profile transit accident or attack news reporters sometimes stick a microphone in front of transit passengers and ask, "How can you possibly continue using transit after what just happened?" with the implication that riding transit is dangerous and foolish. This reflects the myopic tendency of news media to consider just one issue at a time. People and policy makers must balance many factors, including overall safety, efficiency and affordability. It would be foolish for travelers to reduce their transit travel in response to a terrorist attack, despite the fact that transit is an extremely safe mode of travel and provides other benefits to users and society.

Similarly, a common objection to more compact development is the impression that urban living is dangerous due to their high crime rates. This is inaccurate. In fact, cities do not necessarilly have high murder rates. Yes, some urban neighborhoods have high poverty rates which results in high crime rates, including murder, but most of that crime is poor-against-poor. There is no reason to believe that non-poor households face higher homicide risk by moving to a typical urban neighborhood. Even cities that do have relatively high fatality rates are far safer than suburbs overall due to high traffic fatality rates.

As planners and policy advisors we have a responsibility to help decision-makers and the general public put risks into perspective. I recommend that we assemble and disseminate accurate information about the various dangers people face. Educate public officials and the general public about true risks and the problems that result if people overreact to dangers. We should prepare information resources to respond to common dreads, including excessive fear of terrorism, strangers, public transit travel, urban living and new health threats. Enlist community leaders, including public officials and celebrities to help share this information and demonstrate through their own behavior the most appropriate response to risks. For example, the day after the 2005 London subway bombings, Mayor Ken Livingstone rode the subway to work himself, as usual, and made the following statement,  

I know you fear that you [terrorists] may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail. In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfill their dreams and achieve their potential.


For More Information 

1000 Friends (1999), "The Debate Over Density: Do Four-Plexes Cause Cannibalism" Landmark, 1000 Friends of Oregon (; at

John Adams (2005), What Kills You Matters, Not Numbers, The Social Affairs Unit (

Peter Ayton, Samantha Murray and James Hampton (2009), Terrorism, Dread Risk, And Bicycle Accidents, presented at the Society for Judgment and Decision Making Annual Meeting, November 2009, Boston, MA;; describes in "Casualty Toll Of The Dread Risk Effect," Medical News Today, 3 Sept 2009; at

G. Gigerenzer (2004), "Dread Risk, September 11, and Fatal Traffic Accidents," Psychological Science, Vol. 15, pp. 286 –287; at

Todd Litman (2005), "Terrorism, Transit and Public Safety: Evaluating the Risks," Journal of Public Transit, Vol. 8, No. 4 (, pp. 33-46.; at

Todd Litman (2010b), Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits, American Public Transportation Association (; at

Todd Litman and Steven Fitzroy (2006), Safe Travels: Evaluating Mobility Management Traffic Safety Benefits, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris (2005), Terror on Mass Transit, School of Public Policy and Social Research, UCLA (

William Lucy (2002), Danger in Exurbia: Outer Suburbs More Dangerous Than Cities, University of Virginia (

Michael Sivak and Michael J. Flannagan (2004), "Consequences For Road Traffic Fatalities Of The Reduction In Flying Following September 11, 2001," Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, Volume 7, Issues 4-5 (, July-September 2004, Pages 301-305.

WHO (2002), "Risk Perceptions," World Health Report 2002: Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life, World Health Organization (; at

N. Wilson and G. Thomson (2005), "Deaths From International Terrorism Compared With Road Crash Deaths In OECD Countries," Injury Prevention ( Vol. 11, pp. 332-333.
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