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

<p class="Body"> <span>“<em>The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance</em>” </span><span style="font-style: normal">– President</span><span style="font-style: normal"> Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932 </span> </p> <p class="MsoNormal"> <span>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.</span> </p>

September 11, 2011, 7:11 AM PDT

By Todd Litman

"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

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
. 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, a
nalysis 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 

Friends (1999), "The Debate Over Density: Do Four-Plexes Cause Cannibalism" Landmark,
1000 Friends of Oregon (www.friends.org); at www.onethousandfriendsoforegon.org/issues/density.html.

John Adams (2005), What Kills You
Matters, Not Numbers
, The Social Affairs Unit (www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000512.php).

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; www.sjdm.org/programs/2009-posters.pdf;
describes in "Casualty Toll Of The Dread Risk Effect," Medical News Today, 3 Sept 2009; at www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/162812.php.

G. Gigerenzer (2004), "Dread Risk,
September 11, and Fatal Traffic Accidents," Psychological Science, Vol.
15, pp. 286 –287; at www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/en/institut/dok/full/gg/GG_Dread_2004.pdf.

Todd Litman (2005), "Terrorism, Transit and Public Safety: Evaluating the
Risks," Journal of Public Transit,
Vol. 8, No. 4 (www.nctr.usf.edu/jpt/journal.htm),
pp. 33-46.; at www.vtpi.org/transitrisk.pdf.

Litman (2010b), Evaluating Public
Transportation Health Benefits
, American Public Transportation Association
(www.apta.com); at www.vtpi.org/tran_health.pdf.

Todd Litman and Steven Fitzroy (2006), Safe
Travels: Evaluating Mobility Management Traffic Safety Benefits,
Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org);
at www.vtpi.org/safetrav.pdf.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris (2005), Terror
on Mass Transit
, School of Public Policy and Social Research, UCLA (www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=8849).

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

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 (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6VN8-4DS736P-5/2/3bfded271f0caf8e6bd07ad120603595),
July-September 2004, Pages 301-305.

WHO (2002), "Risk Perceptions," World Health Report 2002: Reducing Risks,
Promoting Healthy Life
, World Health Organization (www.who.org); at www.who.int/whr/2002/chapter3/en/index4.html.

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

Todd Litman

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.

Chicago Commute

Planning for Congestion Relief

The third and final installment of Planetizen's examination of the role of the planning profession in both perpetuating and solving traffic congestion.

May 12, 2022 - James Brasuell

Twin Cities

Minneapolis Housing Plan a Success—Not for the Reason You Think

Housing advocates praise the city’s move to eliminate single-family zoning by legalizing triplexes on single-family lots, but that isn’t why housing construction is growing.

May 13, 2022 - Reason

Single-Family Housing Construction

New White House Housing Initiative Includes Zoning Reform Incentives

The Biden administration this morning released a new program of actions intended to spur housing construction around the United States.

May 16, 2022 - The White House

Complete Street Vancouver

Study: Most of Vancouver Is a ‘15-Minute City’

A large majority of Vancouver residents can access a grocery store in 15 minutes or less by bicycle or on foot.

May 20 - Vancouver Sun

Montreal, Quebec

Urban Design, Transport, and Health

The Lancet medical journal published a series of articles that explore how to evaluate and guide urban planning decisions to create healthy and sustainable cities. Live long and prosper!

May 20 - The Lancet - Urban Design, Transport, and Health

MoGo Bikeshare Bikes

Detroit Bike Share Celebrates Five Years

In its five years of operation, Detroit’s MoGo bikeshare has added electric and adaptive bikes to its fleet of more than 600 bikes.

May 20 - MoGo

HUD’s 2022 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Expanding HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.