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Odds of Dying in Terrorist Attack on Airline: 1 in 25 million; Struck by Lightning: 1 in 500,000

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The Wall Street Journal had a compelling essay this weekend about the hysteria surrounding the attempted bombing of a Christmas Day flight into Detroit and the subsequent tightening of airline security.

In his article "Undressing the Terrorist Threat", author Paul Campos (a law professor at University of Colorado) puts the bombing into statistical perspective, noting that:

(1) America is a country of 310 million people, in which thousands of horrible things happen every single day; and
(2) The chances that one of those horrible things will be that you're subjected to a terrorist attack can, for all practical purposes, be calculated as zero.

And while politicians elbow each other for a chance to grandstand about the failed terrorist plot, they choose to ignore other issues that kill a lot more Americans each year than terrorists ever could hope to.

These include the nation's 50 or so daily murders resulting -- in part -- from America's notoriously lax gun laws (giving the U.S. a homicide rate six times greater than that of most developed nations) and the 120 or so daily fatalities stemming from traffic accidents -- many of which could be eliminated by lower speed limits.

Instead our elected officials are locked in what Campos calls the "politics of cowardice" -- the cynical exploitation of fear for political gain -- that makes terrorists winners even when their plans fail or are foiled. Meanwhile, millions of American travelers are greatly inconvenienced over something that in all likelihood will never happen to them.

A companion piece in the Wall Street Journal lays out the statistics. Since 2000, the odds of you dying as a result of a terrorist act aboard a commercial American airliner is 1 in 25 million. The odds of getting struck by lightning: 1 in 500,000.

Yes, you have a 50 times greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying from a terrorist attack on an airplane. Scary numbers indeed. 


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