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The Risk of Groundling Fatalities from Unintentional Airplane Crashes

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The crashes of four hijacked commercial planes on September 11, 2001, and the repeated televised images of the consequent collapse of the World Trade Center and one side of the Pentagon will inevitably change people’s perceptions of the mortality risks to people on the ground from crashing airplanes. Goldstein and colleagues were the first to quantify the risk for Americans of being killed on the ground from a crashing airplane for unintentional events, providing average point estimates of 6 in a hundred million for annual risk and 4.2 in a million for lifetime risk. They noted that the lifetime risk result exceeded the commonly used risk management threshold of 1 in a million, and suggested that the risk to “groundlings” could be a useful risk communication tool because (a) it is a man-made risk (b) arising from economic activities (c) from which the victims derive no benefit and (d) exposure to which the victims cannot control. Their results have been used in risk communication. This analysis provides updated estimates of groundling fatality risks from unintentional crashes using more recent data and a geographical information system approach to modeling the population around airports. The results suggest that the average annual risk is now 1.2 in a hundred million and the lifetime risk is now 9 in ten million (below the risk management threshold). Analysis of the variability and uncertainty of this estimate, however, suggests that the exposure to groundling fatality risk varies by about a factor of approximately 100 in the spatial dimension of distance to an airport, with the risk declining rapidly outside the first 2 miles around an airport. We believe that the risk to groundlings from crashing airplanes is more useful in the context of risk communication when information about variability and uncertainty in the risk estimates is characterized, but we suspect that recent events will alter its utility in risk communication.

Keywords: risk assessment, risk communication, airplane accidents, ground fatalities

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: 1: Department of Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA., 2: Department of Mathematics, Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands., 3: Global Risk Management Solutions, Pricewaterhouse Coopers N.V., Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Publication date: 2001-12-01

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