March 18, 2005

Fear of Flying Leads to More Driving Deaths

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According to a recent study done by Cornell professors, 1,200 people died in the months following Sept. 11 as a result of choosing to travel by driving rather than flying.

“After Sept. 11, people were either afraid to fly, or they were discouraged by the security hassles,” said Prof. Garrick Blalock, applied economics and management, one of three co-authors of the paper titled “The Impact of 9/11 on Driving Fatalities: The Other Lives Lost to Terrorism.” Many people turned to driving instead, according to Blalock.

The consequences of this trend, however, were severe.

“On average you’re a lot more likely to die driving than you are flying,” said Prof. Daniel H. Simon, applied economics and management, who also co-authored the paper.

Blalock and Simon, along with Prof. Vrinda Kadiyali of the Johnson Graduate School of Management, analyzed data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 1994 through 2003.

This allowed them to understand driving fatality trends over time, and then to focus in on how the six months following Sept. 11 differed from these patterns.

They also considered data on air traffic volume from the Department of Transportation. And they found a correlation between the decrease in air traffic volume and the increase in driving fatalities in those months after Sept. 11.

“The most important thing that we did was to look at the increase in non-commercial fatalities relative to commercial fatalities,” Blalock said.

He emphasized that their findings that only non-commercial fatalities increased proved that it was not weather changes or other road conditions that led to the spike in driving fatalities. The three professors began this study about a year and a half ago. They had seen and heard anecdotal stories about a rise in driving deaths from mainstream news.

“We figured that we could analyze the question in more detail,” Kadiyali said. So she suggested that they look at the effect Sept. 11 may have had.

Although they have been able to prove that Sept. 11 had an effect, Simon said that they “cannot distinguish at all whether it is fear that caused people to switch from flying to driving, or whether it’s the hassle of security.”

Blalock said, however, that they “can say for sure that increased security that is visible reduces the demand for air travel.”

As for the increased security, “every airport in the country had new things that they were required to do by the federal government,” said Ithaca Thompkins Regional Airport assistant airport manager Tony Rudy. At the Ithaca Thompkins Regional Airport, he said that most increases in security were done behind the scenes, and that the inconveniences for travelers were less than at larger airports were more traffic meant longer lines.

But he did say that “bags were never screened in the past.” And that after Sept. 11, the formation of the Transportation Security Administration ensures that federal employees screen every bag.

Also, all airports are now required to check passengers names with a list of suspected terrorists. Rudy said that “people with similar names have been delayed or denied flight” until they can clear up the mistake.

The Ithaca Thompkins Regional Airport reported a decrease in departing passengers of 11 percent in 2001 from 2000, and another 9.1 percent decrease in 2002, said Rudy. He said he believes that this decline was due to fear and economics, rather than increased security. But he did say that they “had an increase in rental car activity just because of fewer people flying.”

Blalock said part of the problem is an over reaction to fear.

“People put too much emphasis on outcomes like terrorist attacks that are great in severity but low in probability,” he said. “If you get on an airplane, the chance of your airplane getting blown up by terrorists is very small.”

He also said unintended consequences like these driving fatalities is one thing that policy makers should consider. And Kadiyali said that the government or the airline industry could make the public more aware of the relative safety of flying versus driving.

And individuals need to be more aware as consumers of the travel industry. Kadiyali said “We should be mindful of the risks associated with these choices.”

Archived article by Megan Blanchard
Sun Contributor