The Sciences

A Fistful of Risks

Don't make another move until you've checked it against our compendium of life's potential mishaps.


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What does it mean to talk about the risk of, say, being in an airplane crash or being struck by lightning? Calculations of risks are averages, so they have limited value to the individual. Airplanes, for instance, may be safe in terms of deaths per passenger mile, but that says little about the flight you’re about to board--one that entails several takeoffs and landings in bad weather, on a day following a night when the pilot may have had a few too many. To state a risk implies a foretelling, but this predictive power is misleading. Risk calculations almost always use historical data and mask the dubious assumption that the future will behave like the past.

With these caveats in mind, we combed the statistics of risky behavior to come up with a few numbers to ponder. In many cases, we had to knead the data into the format of risk--a ratio, less than one, of outcomes to possibilities, within a span of time--the number of people struck by lightning in a year divided by the number who could have been struck. All these figures pertain to the United States unless otherwise noted, but be forewarned: to take them literally is risky indeed.


Risk of falling behind in mortgage payments in the next 12 months:

1 in 24

Risk of foreclosure:

1 in 345


Risk of an adult (over 16) losing his or her job in the next year:

1 in 33

By profession:


1 in 116


1 in 82

postal worker

1 in 41


1 in 40

bus driver

1 in 22


1 in 8

Risk of dying in an accident on the job:

in 1934

390 in a million

in 1994

40 in a million

Occupations with high risk of injury:


coal miners

Occupations with low risk of injury:



insurance executives


Risk of being injured in an elevator ride:

1 in 6 million

Risk of dying from:

earthquake or volcano

1 in 11 million

leaking gas

1 in 12 million

dog bite

1 in 20 million

drinking detergent

1 in 23 million


1 in 36 million

The risk of contracting an infection during a stay at a U.S. hospital:

1 in 15

The risk of being infected with flesh-eating bacteria:

1 in 170,000

Risk of dying once infected:

1 in 4

Risk, for an African, of contracting the Ebola virus:

1 in 14 million

Risk of dying once infected:

2 in 3

Riskiest meals out (in Minnesota):

Minnesota may not be representative of the country as a whole, but no other state keeps such close tabs on who gets sick where. We arrived at these figures by estimating that each state resident goes to each type of restaurant once a year--which may not be the case. At any rate, here’s your yearly risk of being poisoned at the following:

italian restaurant

1 in 1,400,000

fast-food restaurant

1 in 440,000

business meeting

1 in 400,000

family gathering

1 in 388,000


1 in 240,000

mexican restaurant

1 in 136,000


Child killers

Children scrape their knees more often than adults, but they lead safer lives--12 children per 100,000 die from an accident yearly, about a third the rate for adults. This obviously should not deter parents from vigilance. But here’s how those childhood accidental deaths break down:

motor vehicle

46 percent


15 percent


15 percent


3 percent


3 percent


3 percent


1 percent


13 percent

Teenage behavior

The risk that the average teenager will drink hard liquor:


1 in 60

once or twice a month

1 in 6

The risk that a teenager will smoke marijuana:


1 in 30

once or twice a month

1 in 17

The risk that a teenager will use cocaine:


1 in 100

once or twice a month

1 in 140

The risk of an adolescent or young adult, aged 14 to 25, dying from:

car accident

1 in 3,500


1 in 4,500


1 in 7,700

Adult behavior

Men are 2.3 times as likely to die in a car crash, 3.3 times as likely to poison themselves, and 7.4 times as likely to die from aids as women.

The price:

Since risk calculations are based on averages, they are often difficult to interpret. Here are some risky activities and the associated costs to life expectancy. The figures give a feeling for relative risks, but it would be silly to take them literally.

driving without a seat

belt on

6 seconds (per trip)

drinking a diet soft drink

9 seconds

smoking one cigarette

12 minutes

being born male

2,700 days

The risk of dying while giving birth:

in ireland

1 in 50,000

in the united states

1 in 12,500

in mali

1 in 50

Your peak years for dying from:

accident age

drowning, 0-5

fires, burns

car accident 15-25

poisoning 30-40

falls 80-90



Everybody knows that air travel is safer per passenger mile than car travel (more than 40 times safer on average). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re safer flying on your next vacation than driving. If you live, say, in Lafayette, Indiana, here’s how the risk of death from traveling to two popular vacation spots stacks up:

driving 100 miles to chicago and back

1 in 588,000

flying 5,000 miles from chicago to rome and back

1 in 500,000

safest state for driving

Rhode Island

most dangerous



In the next 12 months, your risk, on average, of being:


1 in 11,000


1 in 400


1 in 50

The risk of somebody stealing:

your car

1 in 145

your bicycle

1 in 280

your wallet or purse

1 in 1,560


The risk of your being wiped out (with nearly everybody else on Earth) next year by a catastrophic comet, meteor, or asteroid impact:

1 in 20,000

Your risk of being hit, directly, by a former celestial body:

1 in 150 trillion

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