The FBI Crime Clock brings a feeling of urgency to crime statistics by declaring that in 2009, there was “One murder every 34.5 minutes” in the United States. By not figuring in the size of the population in 2009 — some 307 million people — the FBI makes the nation seem to be a more dangerous place than it is. The statistic would more accurately read “One murder every 34.5 minutes for 307 million people.” 307 million people is a lot of people. At the pace seen in 2009, the average person in America would be a victim of murder only once in every 20,151 years. Of course, a person can only be murdered once, but nobody lives for twenty thousand years. The vast majority of people end up dying from something other than murder.
Another way of putting the FBI’s “Crime Clock” statistic for murder is to calculate clock statistic for other events to judge the relative risk. The calculation is not rocket science; if you’d like to figure out how many events occur every second on average, then find out how many times that event happens every year and divide by 31536000 (60 seconds per minute * 60 minutes per hour * 24 hours per day * 365 days per year). To figure out how many seconds pass on average between occurrences of that event, divide 1 by that number. If you’d like to figure out how many events occur per minute, then find out how many times that event happens every year and divide by 512640 (60 minutes per hour * 24 hours per day * 365 days per year). To figure out how many minutes pass on average between occurrences of that event, divide 1 by that number.
Let’s check out the CDC’s preliminary figures for causes of death in 2009, the same year for which the FBI posts its Murder Clock. The table I’ve pointed to tallies up deaths according to ICD-10 cause of death codes, the meanings of which you can find out on the website of the World Health Organization. According to CDC reports, deaths with the following causes are some of those that happen more often than murders:
1 death by heart attack every 1.3 minutes
1 death by Alzheimer’s Disease every 7.23 minutes
1 death by vehicular accident every 13.1 minutes
1 death related to psychoactive drug use every 13.7 minutes
1 death from suicide every 14.0 minutes
1 death from falls every 20.6 minutes
1 death related to alcohol use every 21.1 minutes
and the following are a few causes of death that happen slightly less often than murder, but on the same order of magnitude:
1 death around time of birth (not including those due to congenital abnormalities) every 39.1 minutes
1 death from HIV infection every 54.4 minutes
There are some deaths that are really, really uncommon by comparison; there’s 1 death every 19,717 minutes from either typhoid, paratyphoid or salmonella combined. And yet the danger of salmonella infection won a Congressional hearing in 2010, and in 2009, and in 2008. When salmonella outbreaks occur, they attract broad media attention.
Our media and policy reactions are not always proportional to risk. How many congressional hearings on deaths from falling have you encountered, ever? What portion of the federal budget is devoted to preventing falls? How often do you hear about the hazard of falling on the TV news? And how would you react to the FBI Clock if these other causes of death were placed alongside the statistic for murder?