Thursday, September 07, 2006

At Risk of Dying

The premature death of Steve Irwin, Australia’s famed “Crocodile Hunter,” got me to thinking about death and dying—and, more specifically, about one’s chances of dying while engaged in one’s favorite activities.

People who swim with sharks have a much higher risk of being bitten by a shark (not applicable to lawyers, who enjoy professional courtesy) than do people who stay at home and watch Steve Irwin, swimming with stingrays, on the telly.

It’s a given that we’re all going to die, some sooner, some later, but there’s no question that, eventually, death takes us all. The only questions are how? When? And how much is it gonna hurt?

I heard, recently, that the odds of being struck by lightning are 800,000-to-1. Sounds like a pretty low risk, doesn’t it? Please, be smart enough to know that those odds include the risk to all people. Golfers who stand in the middle of a golf course during a thunderstorm are at substantially higher risk. Mountain climbers who stand on top of a mountain while a thunderstorm passes overhead are at even higher risk of being struck by lightning. Proximity to the danger zone has a lot to do with the odds.

Frequency seems to be a determining factor when assessing risk. How often you engage in risky behavior has a profound effect on your chances of being seriously injured or killed. People who rack up frequent flyer miles are probably more likely to die in an airplane crash than a person who takes a single airplane trip and lives to tell about it.

Vintage fighter jet pilot Robert Guilford had thousands of hours flying without crashing and burning, until he did. Jean-Claude Killy skied on countless mountain slopes without being caught in an avalanche, until he was. Dale Earnhart raced thousands of laps in stock cars without hitting a wall and dying, until he did. (It’s fair to say that because Earnhart did all of his racing in stock cars, his chances of dying in a Formula One race were non-existent.)

The odds of dying in a building collapse are greater if you’re above the floors of a skyscraper impacted by a Jumbo Jet than you are if you’re below the impact area. And if you’re in the impact area . . .? Well, you qualify for a starring role in the next Final Destination movie.

But what are your chances of dying in a building collapse if you’re sitting at a table in the front window of your local Mickey D’s scarfing down a Big Mac? Almost nil! You’d be at greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, or being gunned down by a sniper shooting from across the street. If it’s any consolation, it would be almost impossible for a sniper to hit you if you were in a collapsing skyscraper.

Speaking of those Final Destination movies, when I saw the first one it got me to thinking about my own life, about how many times I’ve averted disaster or escaped serious injury or death and not given it a second thought. I suspect the same can be said for your life, too.

And while we’re on the subject of death, have you ever seen the Sci-fi channel series Dead Like Me? It’s gotta be the funniest show on television. First time I saw it, I damned near died laughing. Still, I haven’t missed an episode since.

Yeah, yeah! It’s risky behavior, I know, but I just can’t seem to help myself. It seems reasonable that if I’m gonna die anyway, I might as well go out laughing.