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The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love (chessintheair.com)
54 points by louis-paul 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

An important and oft-ignored aspect of participating in certain activities! Even this doesn't capture everything. I am also very concerned about the possibility of being maimed by my chosen activities.

For example, open water swimming seems pretty dangerous, but the outcomes are (I would suppose) pretty binary. At the end you're either alive or you're drowned. I suppose that, rarely, someone almost drowns and is left partly brain damaged. But I think most of the time it's on or it's off. Motorcycling, on the other hand, probably maims far more people than it kills. So that makes it relatively more dangerous per hour!

But then you have to adjust by your risk factors. I am an extremely cautious driver. I stay in the right lane, I follow the speed limit, I try to avoid merging, and I check my mirrors. I do these things because, although I have spent a lot of time behind the wheel, I don't trust my fallible human perception and reflexes to take on riskier habits. I suspect, just based on the frequency with which I get into collisions compared to other people I know, that I'm safer than average. If I brought my driving attitude to motorcycling, it seems reasonable to believe that I'd be at much lower risk than the typical, weaving-in-and-out-of-traffic sport-bike rider. But how much so? Nobody has done any study that will help me guess. So, for now, I avoid it, and find fun in things that are less likely to leave me paralyzed.

Anyway, just some things that bumble through my head when I think about activity risk.

"For example, open water swimming seems pretty dangerous, but the outcomes are (I would suppose) pretty binary. At the end you're either alive or you're drowned."

Don't forget the brain-eating amoebas...

As far as motorcycles, in my opinion, the key is to remember that while motorcycles commonly have much higher power-to-weight ratios than cars, the simple fact they have only two tires means they are handicapped compared to cars when braking and cornering. So weaving and speeding is one thing, but don't tailgate, especially because something can go between the wheels of the car in front of you and surprise you.

I sold my motorcycle without ever having an accident and then I had two incidents in my car in the next few years where I would have been dead on a motorcycle because of other drivers' stupidity. So I'm probably not going back to riding.

> If I brought my driving attitude to motorcycling, it seems reasonable to believe that I'd be at much lower risk than the typical, weaving-in-and-out-of-traffic sport-bike rider.

With motorcycling, there are a number of factors that significantly reduce the risk of a significant injury or fatality:

- overall experience as a rider - high-visibility clothing - professional training (ie a safety course) - age

When I started riding someone told me that most accidents happen in the first six months of riding. I don't know if that particular number is accurate, but that idea made me hyper-vigilant those first months of riding, and I sure learned a lot in that time.

I moved to Alaska in my 30s and sold my motorcycle, but I sure do miss it at times.

I was watching a video by Trent Palmer talking about his friend who had crashed his plane. It really opened my eyes when he answered one question about who the most dangerous pilot was, complacent experienced pilots or low hours pilots. Pretty much he said "I am always the most dangerous pilot."

We try to rationalize why we are the "Safe" ones because we can't imagine getting hurt because we are different. The thing is, we aren't different. We can all make the mistakes or be sleepy and we can't relax our vigilance when we're engaging in these high risk activities. (Flying a plane, riding a motorcycle, driving a car, riding a bike...)

We always have to look for better training, equipment, infrastructure, and technology.

If everybody thinks they are above average, half of them are wrong, but half are right.

I pay about 60% less than average for my car insurance, it appears.

Not sure how is this related to parent point. That applies to any activity you do where you are in control.

I would think driving in the right lane is more dangerous on the freeway at least, because of onramps and offramps. I only drive in the left lane on a motorcycle.

Not to get too into the weeds, but depending on the stretch of road (frequency of onramps, and also the style), I might be one step to the left of the rightmost lane. Being in the leftward lanes isn't really an option at the speed limit, since I'd be blocking traffic, which has risks of its own.

my understanding is that going with the flow of traffic is safer than sticking to the speed limit.

It certainly feels safer. But I could imagine how it would be MUCH more dangerous. It's amazing how much difference even 10 MPH can make in an accident. Stopping distance increases by 25% between 60-70 mph. Keep in mind that the kinetic energy of your vehicle goes up with the square of the velocity. This makes braking much harder at high velocities. Not to mention the damage of a collision is increased accordingly. Surviving an accident at 70 is a lot less than 60.

Also risk to pedestrians goes up REALLY fast. At 30MPH a car has a 10% chance of killing a pedestrian. At 40MPH it's close to 50%.

https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title46.2/chapter8/secti... https://nacto.org/docs/usdg/relationship_between_speed_risk_...

I'm not aware of any data that backs up this oft-repeated viewpoint.

Yeah, downhill skiing fatalities are rare, but plenty of serious injuries.

If by serious injury, you include things like ACLs, certainly.

If you mean broken legs, spinal injuries, etc. that's going to vary a huge amount by what kind of skiing you do. If you're a racer in Downhill events, that's one thing. (How many times did Lindsey Vonn seriously injure herself?) Add in high speed tree skiing much less more extreme off-piste skiing of various kinds.

But a recreational skier doing basic blue and black diamond runs with a fair bit of caution? It's pretty safe. Sure, you can wipe out on ice or someone can blindside you. Or you can hit your head--although many wear helmets these days. But, overall, I'm guessing the driving to the hill is more dangerous. (Often fairly long drives in winter conditions.)

As explained in the article, there's no perfect measure for this. Hour of activity is very relative, but I agree that it's probably the safer bet.

In contrast, the only other remotely decent timeframe I could think is per-day of activity since that'd account for a more down-to-earth top of the head calculation. I'd be interested in e.g. what is the probability of dying on 1 day of skiing (3-4h) vs 1 day of skydiving (1 jump).

Measuring "per participation decision" often makes more sense than "per participation hour" when deciding whether to do an activity. (It could be shortened to "per event", defining an "event" to be the result of one decision.)

In explaining the choice of per-hour, the author gave the example of choosing either an afternoon riding a mountain bike or an afternoon flying a sailplane. The example works because they involve about the same number of hours. But it's also the same number of decisions, so per-event works just as well there.

Per-event fixes distortions for quick activities, where durations are meaningless because they're dominated by setup time that isn't counted (or alternatively, the risk varies by multiple orders of magnitude depending on whether you count the overhead).

The chart shows summiting Everest as being 100x safer than base jumping. But if you're deciding which activity to do, it's more relevant to compare risk per-summit to risk per-jump-trip (say, 5 jumps?) or even risk per-jump, since you can calibrate the number of jumps on your trip based on your risk tolerance, but you can't do a fractional summit.

Using the author's numbers, jumping has a risk of 0.13% per jump, or 0.67% for a trip with 5 jumps. Everest has a risk of 6.5%. So in terms more relevant to decision-making, a decision to summit Everest comes with a 10x higher risk of death than a decision to go base jumping, instead of 100x lower as the chart might lead you to think.

-While I agree with your point, I'd just like to chime in that skydivers tend to do several jumps in a day.

I tend to spend a few days at a skydiving hotspot every summer - not to do any jumping myself, if the plane works I'm perfectly happy just staying in my seat, thank you very much - but the kids love to watch, and it is one of few places with a huge playground where I can just let my kids roam free and not be worried about them at all.

Anyway - the Cessna Caravan managed 3-4 cycles/hour, and from what I could tell, there were approx. 20-25 people jumping that day - so, every other trip you got to jump, for perhaps a dozen jumps in a day for the most eager ones.

A half dozen jumps in a day is pretty long day of skydiving although you can certainly do more if you're committed. (and helps if you have someone else packing your chute)

Anecdotally I've met old timers with over 10k total jumps.

Edit with some more info: Most common plane we jumped (in CO) was a DHC-6 Twin Otter that seated about 25. That thing was turning non stop every day. Biggest plane I've ever jumped was a DC-3/C-47 in AZ that seated somewhere around 50 and took two passes over the DZ to get everyone out.

It would be nice to have a table of how many hours per day does a moderate hobbyist do for each of the activities. For biking, I can imagine 4-6 hours being moderate, and for skydiving it would be just 10 minutes. That way, we can do the above math ourselves.

Also, for some activities, how you measure time is really important. Skydiving is such a short duration activity that it really matters if you are measuring a) free fall time b) parachute time c) between plane and ground time d) between takeoff and landing zone time e) time spent at skydiving area.


I do a little bit of cycling on the road, but generally avoid it because I don't trust motorists. I do a lot more mountain biking, including some lift accessed downhill riding.

I've never thought of mountain biking, even downhill, as excessively dangerous, but according to his chart, those lift days this summer were something like 36 times as dangerous as road riding.

I think I'm just a lot more comfortable with the risk of dying because I screwed up, rather than because someone else did.

Again, it's not a perfect measure.

Where I live, there are options to either cycle on a park path or on the road with car drivers. The death risks are completely different for those modes.

When on the road, your primary cause of death will be an accident with a motorist.

When on the bike path, it'll likely be heart failure.

The climbing is all bunched together! I want to know if it’s mountaineering, alpine Trad climbing, or all climbing that is causing that Tetons figure.

EDIT: I read the source. Looks like mostly mountaineering/unroped accidents. Now I can delude myself again! Use protection!

“TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES OF THE ROUTES Most climbers were hurt during climbs of lesser difficulty. (Table 3). The category of 5.1 to 5.3 yielded the highest number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

CLIMBING EXPERIENCE OF INJURED CLIMBERS Climbers with less experience appeared to be more frequently involved in accidents than were those with more experience. (It was possible to precisely determine the experience of the climbers in only about 50% of the accidents.) Of those climbers whose experience levels were known, 50% either had no previous climbing experience or less than one year of experience.


The errors observed in the rock climbing accidents fell into two categories: seven cases of obvious lack of needed protection, and four cases where a rope should have been used but was not available. In contrast to other climbing areas, little intentional free solo (unroped) climbing was attempted in the Tetons during this study”

It's funny, the world of high end extreme alpinism has lost several of it's very best climbers the past 3 years. Uli Steck, Marc Andre LeClerc, David Lama and Hansjorg Auer all specialized in unroped climbing in extreme Alpine terrain. Yet it wasn't falls that killed them, they were all killed by falling snow and ice.

Ueli Steck was killed by a fall when climbing alone. We don't know what caused the fall. https://www.outsideonline.com/2188941/last-days-ueli-steck

I thought he was killed by a collapsing serac, I'm not even sure how the idea got into my head.

That’s exactly the fib I’ve been telling myself about my husband's gliding hobby: “Less dangerous than the drive to the airfield and far safer than a motorcycle!”

But I’ll never ask him to stop - it makes him too happy.

Didn’t realize how incredibly safe my own bit of winter danger (downhill skiing, in bounds) was... even a bit safer than my summer hobby: cycling.

If we go by number of people-hours in space, then spaceflight is pretty safe... 150 years of human life in space, and 17 deaths in orbital spaceflight... mean time of 8 years between deaths, safer than general aviation (7 years)...

Russian/Soviet spaceflight is particularly safe (about 20 years mean time between deaths), especially if you exclude the first dozen or so years (no orbital spaceflight deaths have occurred for the Soviets or Russians past 1971), making it about as safe as biking or driving (so long as you use a Soyuz for launch and reentry).


I would guess that if you broke it down, being in space is quite safe, but getting to space is extremely dangerous. This matches intuition, since in the former case you are just floating in freefall, but in the latter case you are seated atop a metal tube filled with explosive chemicals travelling at absurd speeds through an atmosphere.

Very true. Of course, passenger aviation is really pretty similar... you're inside a pressurized metal tube (with relatively small factors of safety) surrounded by explosive chemicals traveling nearly the speed of sound (absurd by ordinary standards), yet it's far safer than any mode of transport, even per hour. Engineering is pretty crazy. If there's strong enough incentive to make an activity absurdly safe, we can do so, even if the performance requirements are also very stringent.

Life without risk is not life. It's almost a law of physics that anything interesting requires risk - whether it be to limb, financial, social, mental, or whatever else. If you don't put yourself out there in _some_ way, boredom and depression are probably inevitable

Anyone in a position of safety intimately knows this. The retired die early. Trust fund kids spiral into depression if they have nothing to strive for. We all know that boring "job for life" guy who's been doing the same thing inside and outside of work for 20 years.

Damn I miss my bike. See, the risk of dying on a motorbike is quite high. The risk of having it stolen is higher still. ;)

Hrm, I don't really agree. There are a lot of very interesting things that are not very risky. Most productive activities are not very risky (art, woodworking, home improvement, etc.), and are very interesting to some of us. Sex is another example of something a lot of people like which carries little risk of harm.

I don't think there is good evidence beyond anecdata that the retired die early or that trust fund kids are depressed.

Sex carries 'little risk of harm'? Do we live in the same world?

I think your definition of risk is rather narrow.

Going out, finding a wife, grinding at a job, taking a mortgage, starting a company, not starting a company - all risk.

You might be able to claim that physical risks are harsher and less expected, but getting a mortgage, having children, getting married, a lot of the good stuff in life entails risk because you're making commitments that are extremely difficult or impossible to walk back if you don't want them any more.

I think you're focusing a little too much on that one example, but let me engage with you on this regardless. Even after a person has taken all those risks and they are sunk costs, the activity itself is still enjoyable, interesting, etc., even though it entails minimal marginal or excess risk. Similarly, hugging your kids is an enjoyable thing to do, and not at all risky. Having kids is risky, but once you have them, hugging them is risk free and still fun.

I also don't really find these things to be all that risky above the baseline. They certainly don't pose much risk of physical harm. To your point, they do pose some risk of psychological or financial harm, but the same can be said of the choice to not have a child or not take out a mortgage. There are plenty of happy childless people, but also a not inconsiderable number that wish they could have had children and regret that they did not. Same can be said for people who rented rather than bought. Either way, the choice is risky, and you can't opt out of the choice.

The same cannot be said for climbing a steep rock wall or riding a motorcycle. These choices impose excess risk above and beyond the baseline that comes from living in a material world. It was my understanding that this excess risk is what you were referring to when you claimed that enjoyment requires risk. If that's not what you meant, then I apologize, but I'm also not sure what you are actually trying to convey, since this article is mostly about excess risk.


I can't reply to you, so I'm editing this comment instead.

> I disagree with your characterization of physical risk as being 'excess risk'

Ah, it is understandable for you to disagree, considering that is not what I meant. :) Excess risk is risk you take above and beyond a baseline required for a particular context. If I need to get from the bottom of a tower to the top, the risk imposed by taking the elevator might be considered the baseline risk. Suppose I decide to scale the exterior surface instead. To the extent that activity is riskier than the baseline, that is excess risk.

This does not only apply to physical situations. Social, economic, etc. risk can also be analyzed in terms of excess risk. For example, you earlier mentioned the decision to marry or not. There is social risk in either choice. Probably, which choice is riskier depends on your own psychological makeup and your social context. But there are probably choices that are absolutely riskier in your given society. For example, in most modern societies, entering into multiple social marriages at the same time would impose excess social risk. For more see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_difference

I disagree with your characterization of physical risk as being 'excess risk' (where other forms of risk are not), but I can't/won't elaborate on why, because I think it's just a personal opinion formed through experience.

I think the parent had this key part - "risk - whether it be to limb, financial, social, mental, or whatever else". Going by your example of art, it carries some of the other types of risks - mental (not being appreciated), financial (not making enough for a decent life), societal (getting too engulfed and being lonely). I'm not saying the parent was well backed by data and statistics, I just think there's some truth to it - interesting things are frequently interesting, because you can also fail at them. If you can't fail, the reward is much smaller / non-existent.

Doing art (or anything else) as a profession certainly has those risks, but art as an activity in general does not have any significant excess risks associated with it. (I would not consider "getting engulfed" as an excess risk since that can happen with anything.)

You may be right that there is some truth to what the top poster said. I did not mean to imply I thought it was absolutely and categorically untrue. I just think it's broadly untrue. "Things that are unrisky are unfun" is a not a generally true statement, for most people. It could certainly be true for some people. But, I suspect most people who say such things are rationalizing their choice of activity, exactly as the linked article suggests.

One thing left out that I have in my past is whitewater kayaking and I've always wondered how safe it is statistically as there are always horrible drowning stories...

This chart is probably the most interesting part:


Taking date from 1950 till today for Formula 1 seems to bit a bit biased towards earlier, less safe times.

Many of these activities involve exercise, which means they'll significantly decrease your risk of premature death compared to a "safe" sedentary activity. Just something to keep in mind when thinking about risks.

Here's a rough analysis for cycling: https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2013/06/13/bicycling-the-saf...

That is a very bad analysis. The neg effect of driving car severely overstated. The effect of riding bicicle not only severely overstated: it is assumed, that it is linear, where results likely quickly diminish.

UPD. Read more of the article. He is wrong in so many places I stopped counting.

> The effect of riding bicicle not only severely overstated: it is assumed, that it is linear, where results likely quickly diminish.

It's rough envelope math, but gist of the reasoning is correct. He also explicitly addresses your point on linearity.

> *Obviously, the life-extending benefits of exercise have limits, otherwise we could all live forever just by exercising enough to extend our lives by at least 24 hours each day. If you dig deeper into the linked articles and studies, you’ll find that the limit is somewhere in the 1-2 hours per day range, depending on exercise intensity (cycling is pretty low intensity, so let’s say two hours to max out the benefits). > > I don’t know about you, but even as a retired person with a bike, I still don’t always get 2 hours of exercise every day. For the average modern citizen, the stats tell us that the average level is far, far lower – many people get ZERO exercise beyond walking between the car, office, fridge, and couch. Maybe a visit to the gym or yoga a few times a week. For the average person, getting up to an hour a day will deliver spectacular benefits, and when you rule out “car clown” behavior (using a car for any trips less than 2-3 miles), it happens automatically. > > Your situation might be different, but remember the intent of this blog is to change the behavior of a big swath of smarter-than-average people stuck in average situations. So I stand by the general accuracy of this part of the argument.

Another measurement could look at downstream effects. I expect boxing and American football have low in-game mortality, but CTE evidence is pretty damning for cascading effects down the line

These numbers are all per man-hour instead of per trip. That's not good or bad but it definitely biases things toward making slower activities look safer. One hour of base jumping is on the order of jumping every weekend for 2-3yr (assuming 30sec from jump to ground).

With base jumping, you really need to separate out general base jumping from proximity flying.

For anyone unfamiliar with the sport, base jumping implies jumping off of something and then deploying a chute. This may or may not involve a wingsuit. Proximity flying involves jumping off of something in a wingsuit, and then flying closely along a mountain or other terrain for a while before deploying a chute.

Proximity flying has an insanely high fatality rate, because people tend to push their limits and at some point there is just no room for a mistake.

Not dying is not an option... we risk dying not doing what we love

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