The headlights of the eighteen wheeler suddenly appeared in my rearview mirror and I could tell it was quickly approaching. The rain had stopped but the roadway was still wet as Interstate 81 descended into the town of Christiansburg in Virginia’s long and scenic Shenandoah Valley. As I passed the slow-moving van in the right lane, the massive truck was suddenly tailgating and flashing its lights in annoyance. As I sped up to nearly eighty miles per hour and merged back into the right lane ahead of the van, the truck flew by on my left, coming perilously close to sideswiping my small rental car.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”1 Taking risks in life is unavoidable because the world is full of perils and one cannot live in the world without accepting this reality. However, the choices we make can greatly influence the chances of encountering various types of risk as well as the consequences of negative outcomes. Being oblivious to peril may make life temporarily more pleasant and certain people might go through a long lifetime unscathed through sheer luck. But that doesn’t seem like an intelligent way to bet.
The unpleasant reality is that we are in less control of our lives than we would like to admit.
We all seek to control the path of our lives and guarantee a positive outcome, but we could depart from this life at any moment of any day. And we cannot afford to ever forget that.
Why did I choose to drive over two thousand miles earlier this month rather than fly to my destination? The answer is that my perception of the risks of COVID-19 led me to rent a car and drive in order to avoid potential exposure at airports and on commercial flights. In making this decision, I most certainly did not eliminate risk. Instead, I shifted one type of risk for another. I traded the risk of exposure for a few hours on a commercial flight for the risk of exposure during the inevitable stops that are part of a long road trip. In addition, I traded the very low risk of death as a result of a commercial airline accident for the substantially higher risk of death due to an automobile accident.2
Correctly assessing risk is fraught with peril because it is all too easy to think about risk in ways that make no sense. Additionally, it is easy to think that you have more control over certain situations than you actually have. For example, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that they are above average drivers which is obviously not possible. This is true even though nearly all drivers admit that they have engaged in unsafe driving practices at various times. The illusion of control coupled with a delusional sense of superior skills leads to systemically underestimating certain types of risk. Auto accidents are simply things that happen to bad drivers, not to us.
Of course, it only takes a minimal amount of thought to conclude that the risks of driving are, in fact, much greater than flying in normal times. Even if you insist on believing that your driving skills are above average, all of those other terrible drivers are out there and can cause accidents that could injure or kill you.
Two years ago, I was a passenger in a car that was struck in a low speed collision by a driver who made an illegal left turn. Although there were no serious injuries, my ribs were bruised badly enough to make running impossible for two weeks. There’s nothing like being slapped with reality to realize what can happen to the human body in a collision at highway speeds.
We control much less in our lives than we would like to acknowledge in normal times. Making decisions in the midst of a pandemic throws in another variable that makes rational risk assessment even more difficult.
I think that I am an above average driver (who doesn’t?), but I have driven enough miles in my life to know that being on the road is inherently dangerous. Coupled with the sheer boredom of interstate highway driving for hundreds of miles per day, the drudgery of traffic jams, and the interminable construction during summer months, I would normally opt to fly on any trip likely to require more than eight hours of driving. However, somehow COVID-19 altered my perception of risk to the point where I thought of driving as lower risk when considering the odds of infection.
The illusion of control makes it more appealing to travel in a private vehicle than to accept the risk of being in a long metal tube with potentially over a hundred other passengers in close proximity. There is no control when traveling on an airplane. Not in terms of controlling the safety of the aircraft’s operation or the behavior of other passengers who might be just a few feet away. There is no way to know if the person seated behind you or across the aisle has COVID-19. There is no way to stop someone who decides to take off their mask and happens to sneeze without covering their face. Random behavior, even with no malicious intent, can occur on a flight.
Of course, when you travel long distances in a car, you have to stop at various times to use the bathroom, purchase fuel for the car, and eat meals. And although I tried to cover both 1,100 mile one-way trips without stopping for the night, eventually the risk of continuing to drive after sixteen or seventeen hours on the road forced me to stay in motels on both legs of the trip. Every one of these interactions brings potential exposure to COVID-19 as well. I cannot control what the person in the next row of an airplane does, and neither can I control whether the person at the front desk at the hotel takes his mask of and sneezes just as I’m walking in the door.
A quick Google search regarding the COVID-19 transmission risk of traveling on a commercial flight yields hundreds of links with varying opinions. However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the air on commercial flights is actually cleaner than the air found in many other settings such as restaurants, grocery stores, or private residences. A recent National Geographic article makes the following points regarding aircraft that are equipped with HEPA filters:
About 40 percent of a cabin’s air gets filtered through this HEPA system; the remaining 60 percent is fresh and piped in from outside the plane. “Cabin air is completely changed every three minutes, on average, while the aircraft is cruising,” says Becker. (Lufthansa has a video showing how HEPA filters work.)
Officially, certified HEPA filters “block and capture 99.97 percent of airborne particles over 0.3 micron in size,” says Tony Julian, an air-purifying expert with RGF Environmental Group. The efficiency of these filters, perhaps counterintuitively, increases for even smaller particles. So while the exhaled globs that carry SARS-CoV-2 can be quite small, HEPA filters effectively remove the vast majority from the air.National Geographic
Of course, the effectiveness of filters only exists if the air travels through the filter before reaching you. There is still a risk of direct contact with an infected person who could spread the virus directly to you. Your seating location on a plane also can have a significant impact on your risk of infection, with those in window seats toward the front of the plane having the lowest risk of encountering other passengers. Obviously, staying seated rather than moving around the cabin further reduces risk in flight. Masks are the best tool to avoid person-to-person transmission before air can travel through the filters.
In order to travel on a commercial flight, one must navigate not only the airplane itself but the airport terminal. Some of the measures in place, such as temperature screening, might have an element of “security theater” since asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 has been common. However, by barring symptomatic passengers, requiring masks, and ensuring social distancing, navigating an airport seems no more perilous than navigating the grocery store. Certain airlines such as Southwest, have taken additional precautionary measures to limit risk such as capping the number of passengers on a flight to ensure that middle seats are empty, except when family members choose to sit next to each other. Southwest flights also undergo deep cleaning and there are advanced HEPA filters on board.
The available information we have today makes it clear that the best policy is to limit exposure in general and clearly travel brings about inevitable opportunities for exposure. However, nearly six months into this pandemic, a certain level of travel becomes necessary for many people and once you decide that you need to get from point A to point B, the relevant question is to weigh the relative risks of modes of travel. The illusion of control might make it seem like driving limits the risk of COVID-19 exposure relative to getting into that long metal tube and “surrendering control”, but the illusion is irrational. Next month when I travel to the same destination again, I plan to fly on Southwest Airlines rather than accept the hazards that come with driving 2,200 miles.
As I reached the outskirts of Birmingham, I was optimistic that I had enough time to make it to my destination by midnight. I had already driven nearly eight hundred miles, traffic was moving quickly, the afternoon storms were over, and the sun was beginning to set as I drove west on Interstate 20. Suddenly the traffic came to a complete stop. Another traffic jam probably caused by the interminable construction taking place all over the country. Google maps showed a long red line extending into the city, indicating a long delay.
A half hour later, the line of fire trucks and ambulances in the distance made it obvious that this was not a construction delay. As traffic narrowed to a single lane on the left shoulder to pass the scene, I first saw the burnt out cab of the truck, still smoldering. Then I saw the unrecognizable remains of a small vehicle that had been totally destroyed in a way that was obviously not survivable.
One or more people clearly lost their lives that afternoon, but you will never read about them on the front page of a newspaper or hear a television reporter tell their life stories. The idea that we are masters of our fate is an illusion. We can take precautions, consider all available information, and choose prudently, but total control is a chimera.
I decided not to push my luck by driving another three hundred miles and checked into a motel.