Claim: More people are killed annually by donkeys than die in aviation accidents.
Origins: Fear of flying is one of our more prevalent phobias, ranking right up there with a dread of heights or terror of snakes. However, unlike
many other phobias, it's reinforced on an ongoing basis by events featured on the nightly news. Coverage of plane crashes works to remind those who have a fear of flying exactly what they're afraid of, and these grim images are familiar TV fodder because mishaps involving airliners are given prominent news coverage, even if no one aboard is injured. When there is loss of life, the death toll per incident is usually high because an accident serious enough to kill one person generally kills everyone aboard. All of this serves to reinforce the fears — that many people died in one fell swoop as a result of engaging in a particular activity (i.e., flying) is interpreted to mean that the activity itself must be inherently dangerous.
Other activities are far more likely to lead to loss of life, but because the death tolls associated with them mount up more slowly — only a body or two at a time — we are not dramatically reminded of this fact in the same way the dangers of flying are brought home to us when we snap open our morning newspapers and are confronted with the news of another plane crash. Automobile accidents resulting in loss of life occur every day, but we gloss over recognition of the number of car-crash deaths because the information comes in dribs and drabs. The annual figures of automobile accident fatalities never carry as much impact as a single front-page headline of an airplane crash that claimed hundreds of lives.
It becomes easy for the average air passenger to believe that airline travel involves significant risks, even though statistically it may be much safer than any number of
activities people regularly undertake without much concern over potential dangers. The statistic about more people being killed every year by donkeys than by airplane crashes works to counter those misperceptions by highlighting that, contrary to what we may think, a slow, clumsy, primitive mode of transportation is actually more dangerous (or at least kills more people) than air travel. We like it because it makes us feel better about flying, and because we're sadly in need of reassurance.
Yes, but is this donkey-to-airplane comparison true? No one could possibly say, because while data about airplane crashes is readily available, we have yet to find so much as a single source for donkey-induced death statistics. (This fanciful comparison certainly vexes donkey lovers though, as evidenced by the vehement denial of it in the FAQ on the American Donkey and Mule Society's web site.)
We've traced the claim as far back as 1987, when it was cited in the London Times in an article about — not surprisingly — efforts to help people overcome their fear of flying:
The statistics on the safety of flying are immensely comforting, despite recent reports of a near-miss between a 747 and an RAF Hercules over Carlisle, and the Boeing 747 captain who apparently had to be reminded to lower his craft's undercarriage before landing at Heathrow. One expert has estimated that more people in the world are kicked to death by donkeys than die in plane crashes.
And that's pretty much it. From then on, this statistic has been cited over and over in newspapers and year after year on the Internet, but never with any references to support its validity.
Well, if it can't be proved, is it at least plausible?
We might be willing to believe that more people are injured (i.e., kicked, bitten, trampled, or thrown) in donkey-related accidents than in airline-related accidents. Or, given a worldwide growth of air travel and a declining use of donkeys, we might be willing to believe that the rate of donkey-related accidents exceeds the rate of airline-related accidents. We might even be willing to believe that there are as many donkey-related fatalities (such as people getting hit by cars while leading or riding donkeys) as airline fatalities. But the claim that donkeys directly kill (by kicking) more people every year than airplane crashes do is a bit much to swallow without something to back it up. (The number of airline-related fatalities varies from year to year, but a figure of 1,200 deaths per year is a reasonable average.)
The donkey statistic sounds like what the Times (almost) claimed it was back in 1987: something invented on the spot by an "expert" to make the point that people are too often influenced by considering isolated bits of information rather than examining them in an appropriately larger context.
Others confronted with this item have offered some pithy rejoinders:
The Weekend Australian maintained that "flying is safer than any other form of transport except escalators" (and presumably including donkeys).
The Hartford Courant's Jim Shea quipped that the higher number of donkey deaths was understandable because "the faster mode of transportation always poses the higher risk."
In the Wellington Evening Post, Phil Pennington offered: "Ever wondered whether it's the airlines themselves, knowing the value of a reassuring urban myth, who pass these sorts of comparisons around?"