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The dangers of summer fun

Some of America's favorite summertime activities -- like swimming -- may be fun, but they come with a lot of risks.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name. It is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, it is so good go talk to you again, man.

Stephen Dubner: And to you, Kai. I missed you, too. How's your summer been?

Ryssdal: Good, good. Busy, busy, but good.

Dubner: 'Tis, of course, the season for outdoor activity -- some of which I'm here to tell you can have a very significant downside.

Ryssdal: Like what? Sunburn and mosquitoes bites? What?

Dubner: No, I'm actually talking about death. I hate to be a killjoy in the middle of summer, but I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the relative danger of some of America's favorite summertime activities.

Ryssdal: All right.

Dubner: So let's start with motorcycling. Here's Randa Samaha from the National Crash Analysis Center.

Randa Samaha: Motorcyclists are very vulnerable road users. For every 100 million vehicle mile traveled, there are over 24 riders killed.

Ryssdal: So when I was 20-something years old, I told my grandfather that I wanted to buy a motorcycle and he said I would sooner kill you with my bare hands. He was a doctor.

Dubner: Good advice. I don't know if you own a boat, Kai, but the boating statistics are a little bit frightening. Here's Mike Baron with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mike Baron: We're roughly down to about, say, 6.2 deaths per every 100,000 boats.

And swimming, something most of us do -- I do a lot of in the summer. Here's Julie Gilchrist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Julie Gilchrist: Overall the drowning rate in the United States for all ages is 1.29 per 100,000.

I couldn't find any stats on golfing because that's how I spend my free time. I think that's relatively safe. But skydiving, here's Nancy Koreen from the U.S. Parachute Association.

Nancy Koreen: There's been an average of maybe 22 fatalities a year, which is about seven per 1 million skydives.

Ryssdal: OK wait. Seven per million versus all those others, which is not so bad.

Dubner: Yeah, not so many. The motorcycle death rate is based on the number of miles traveled. Swimming deaths, meanwhile, are counted on a per capita basis. Skydiving deaths, based on the number of jumps. And of course, a lot fewer people go skydiving every year than go swimming.

Ryssdal: Help me out here, though, oh Freakonomics-Obi-Wan. What is the message here? Are we... Oh, I know what it is. We're scared of the wrong thing.

Dubner: That is exactly right. Human beings are generally quite bad at assessing risk. We tend to get worried about the big, anomalous events. Shark attacks, for instance, which on average kill fewer...

Ryssdal: You know why? Cause they're scary!

Dubner: They are scary and they get a lot of news coverage and then when they get a lot of news coverage we're convinced that they are a lot more common than they are. Five people on average worldwide die from unprovoked shark attacks. Meanwhile, in the U.S. alone in a given year, 4,500 people die from motorcycle accidents and another 4,000 or so from drowning.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but here's the thing: I could step off the curb in front of Marketplace global headquarters here this afternoon on my way to get a cup of coffee...

Dubner: God forbid, but yes you could.

Ryssdal: And I could get hit by a bus. What am I supposed to do?

Dubner: You're going to do what you want to do.

Ryssdal: Yes I am.

Dubner: I'm not saying you should be overly scared of things you shouldn't be, but there is a lot to learn looking at these numbers, just taking a step back and doing it. One piece of data that really jumps out at you is this -- the ability of alcohol to make bad things happen. So listen to this: About 30 percent of all motorcyclists who died were legally drunk. The Coast Guard tells us that alcohol was the primary contributing factor in about 16 percent of the boating fatalities.

Ryssdal: What about skydiving? People don't drink and skydive, do they?

Dubner: There are no hard and fast stats on it. We did ask. Here's Nancy Koreen again at the U.S. Parachute Association.

Koreen: For the most part, skydivers aren't really interested in doing that kind of thing. Skydiving is fun enough. You're having a good time and why would you add that extra element of risk?

Dubner: You know, Kai, this raises an interesting point. If an activity is prima facie dangerous, maybe it scares people from away from adding a layer of danger by drinking or something like drinking.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but hang on a minute because motorcycling is prima facie dangerous. But people drink and motorcycle all the time.

Dubner: To some people it is, to some people plainly it's not. I tend to agree with you, especially riding a bike without a helmet. Helmets are estimated to prevent about 40 percent of crash deaths among motorcyclists and yet there are a lot of bikers out there who would much prefer to ride a bike than to not and to ride a bike without a helmet. Look, if safety is your primary concern this summer -- I'm not saying it should be -- but if it is, I've got the ultimate activity for you and everybody out there. You stay in side, you listen to your radio.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner.

Dubner: Taking the coward's way out.

Ryssdal: Ay man, I'm all right with that. Freakonomics.com is the website. He's back in a couple of weeks if he stays safe out there.

Dubner: Kai, tsk tsk tsk.

Ryssdal: You've got to be safe.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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30% of bikers found dead in accidents were discovered to be drunk. Okay, but this is significant only if it is different from the percentage of live bikers who are drunk. IOW, if 30% of ALL bikers are drunk at any given time, then we can't presume that drunkenness is related to death.

Two points. Most sports you mentioned are single sport items. But cycles need to deal with cars. Cycle to cycle or single cycle accidents are rare. Add cards and you kill lots.

Boats, golf, skydiving require training. They have lower limits since you need some level of training to enjoy the sport.

Staying at home creates overweight, under-exercised gamers and TV watchers. All of them ready to die from heart attacks, diabetes, etc.

But you are right, just add booze to any sport (even sitting around the back yard) you really up the chances of death.

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