The risks of bungee jumping

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- Eric, a twenty-two-year-old Reston resident and fast-food worker, taped a number of bungee cords together and strapped one end around his foot before making the 70-foot jump from the railroad trestle. Eric remembered to measure the length of the cords to make sure they were a few feet short of the 70-foot drop, and he had the foresight to anchor the end to the trestle. He proceeded to leap headfirst from the trestle, and hit the pavement 70-feet below. The Fairfax County police said, "The stretched length of the cord that he assembled was greater than the distance between the trestle and the ground."

I recently read an interesting article in Time Magazine on the psychology of risk. The article points out that we often use statistics to evaluate risk. For instance the risk of being hit by a falling airplane is about one in 250,000 over the course of one's life unless you live near an airport, in which case the risk of getting hit on the cranium is about one in 10,000. So, one may be more inclined to live somewhere other than under the JFK approach path. We agonize over mad cow pathogens in our hamburgers but worry far less about the potential effects of cholesterol and heart disease which accounts for 700,000 deaths annually. Clearly as a population, where 20 percent of drivers don't use seat belts, we have a skewed perception of risk. The article goes on to make the point that it would be a lot easier to acknowledge the perils of drinking too much, risky sex, and uncounted other indulgencies if the gratification wasn't so immediate and the penalties so deferred. Perhaps this is why it is so easy for us to drink without thought until the day after the alcohol related incident. It would appear that none of us are immune from this faulty perception of risk. Officer, enlisted, civilian, dependent ... we are all wired about the same ... go for the now and worry about the later tomorrow.

The analysis of risk is always clearer the day after when we are dealing with the consequences. The antidote is rational forethought. Rather than going for instant gratification maybe we should just spend a little more time analyzing potential penalties. Armed with the knowledge that each of us already has a whacked perception of risk (see our skewed preparations for Y2K) perhaps we will be more inclined to keep our eye on the more obvious risks of dashing across a dimly lighted street against the light or poisoning ourselves to the point of having our stomachs pumped after drinking too much. The risk of dying while bungee jumping may be greater than the risk of having an airplane fall on you ... but if you don't bungee jump then the risk is actually zero. Now there's some math I can get behind.