Why are we so obsessed with plane crashes?

There’s an old saw regarding man’s natural inclination to be fascinated with horrific scenes which is generally described in terms of our being unable to look away from a train wreck. The more common example experienced by most of us is the all too frequent situation of being stuck in traffic for long periods only to find that the cause of the disruption was an automobile accident on the other side of the median. There’s no reason for traffic on your side to be delayed except for the rubberneckers ahead of you. But if we’re being honest, the majority of us will also look at the wreckage.

But those are instances which occur right in front of our eyes, and we’re to be forgiven if something shocking briefly captures our attention when it’s only a few yards away. As a nation, however, particularly when filtered through the lens of the media, such things are not found to be worthy of the same prolonged fascination. A train wreck will usually make the news for a day or two, but it only goes national if there are a number of passenger cars with significant injury or loss of life. And even then it’s not a terribly long story arc unless there are mitigating factors such as a sleeping or impaired engineer, faulty track maintenance or other wrongdoing which the media can make hay out of. Car crashes are, sadly, too ubiquitous to be worth more than local mention unless the occupants of the vehicle are celebrities.

But plane crashes are different. Last spring’s loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 occupied the media for so long that I ranked it as the number one way that the media wasted our time in 2014. The most recent crash by Air Asia is being updated on cable news with each new piece of wreckage found, and the coverage shows no signs of slowing. Even the wreck of a small plane with only five passengers is a national headline, though admittedly the seemingly miraculous survival of a seven year old girl gives the story an added hook.

But why? It’s true that a lot of people dying all at one time is more sensational at first glance, but the numbers are not actually that notable. The sum total of all the plane crashes around the world in 2014 produced an alarming 1,320 deaths. Compare that with the annual global total of deaths in car crashes which averages 1.3 million. Viewed on that scale, the barely 1,300 air disaster deaths doesn’t even come close to the 3,287 people killed in automobile wrecks every day. The old maxim about how you are safer flying than driving is absolutely true, but flying is different.

I think the reason for this is that flying still scares us. And I don’t just mean the people who suffer from paralyzing combinations of aerophobia and acrophobia. Flying is unnatural for a variety of reasons and I believe it stimulates something deep in our lizard brain stems which makes us distrust the technology – no matter how reliable it has proven to be – and stirs a horrid fear and fascination when we see others succumb to the crashing deaths we all fear at some level when we get on a plane. Flight, much like travel over the water, puts us into three dimensions of potential threat rather than the two we are primarily accustomed to on land.

We’ve had a long time to evolve a certain comfort level with the idea of traveling across the land, even if we’re going faster than we could on our own two feet by means of some other conveyance. We’ve been riding on domesticated animals or being pulled in carts or chariots since before we began recording history. The stretch from there to riding in a car wasn’t all that great. Potential threats come at you from the front, the rear or the sides. And if your conveyance breaks down or runs into something, safe old Mother Earth is only a couple of feet below you and you might just be able to walk away. (Or so you comfort yourself into thinking, anyway.)

But in the water, there is a vast, dark, unseen depth below us if our boat sinks, and a primitive part of our mind is quick to remind us that monsters lurk below. (Which, of course, they actually do.) A new dimension is added. And high up in the sky, there is no getting out and walking to the nearest house if your motor goes out. The fall into that third dimension is terrifying. I think that’s the major appeal in skydiving (speaking as someone who did it for a few years) which is found in the rush of fear driven adrenaline. Nobody is skydiving because it’s a faster way back to the terminal than waiting for the plane to land.

Maybe that’s why we are so dreadfully fascinated by plane crashes. And the media feeds that fascination by running airplane crash stories for weeks and months on end. We can’t look away from the perception of our own mortality.

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