Why do we fear flying more than driving? Here’s a hunch

In the United Kingdom, an unwritten rule says that two heirs to the British throne should not travel together by air, according to Business Insider and others. The intent, I suppose, is to avoid the royal equivalent of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives becoming the leader of the free world.

The heir rule sounds a bit like “amygdala hijacking,” the psychology term for when this almond-shaped cluster of neurons in our brains unnecessarily triggers our fight, flight or freeze response. I say hijacking because, as we all know, air travel is far safer, statistically speaking, than riding in a car, and yet up to 40% of us suffer from “flying-related anxiety,” according to a 2016 paper in Frontiers in Psychology. By contrast, just one in 10 U.S. adults report experiencing amaxophobia, the fear of driving a car or riding in one, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Put another way, most of us don’t hesitate to hurtle past trees and cement poles at 70% of the terminal velocity of a human being. Some of us even need to be coerced by the threat of a ticket to wear a seatbelt. It’s quite a paradox.

I’ve been reading up in search of a scientific explanation for all this. My inspiration came partly from the letters we received in response to the opinion piece in the July/August issue, “Safety versus innovation: It’s time for rebalancing.” Let’s set aside, for now, the controversial contention that safety standards for air travel should be aligned with those governing automobiles. What I’m looking for is any logic and science that could explain how we humans arrived at this place where so many of us respond to flying as though it’s riskier than driving.

What follows is a guess from Googling and reading for about two hours, so I would not dare to call it a theory. I welcome any crowdsourcing about studies or principles that could support or dispel this notion.

Imagine a couple of rambunctious pre-adolescent ancestors of ours approaching the edge of a forbidden cliff. Let’s say it’s about 400,000 years ago and, in this period, the prefrontal cortexes of our ancestors suddenly expanded. That’s the part of the brain that turns fear into wise action. The tween whose brain recognized the risk likely stayed farther back from the edge and survived when the rocks suddenly gave way. This person lived long enough to have children and pass on a set of superior genes. On this point, I see a strong signal in the literature that exactly how the brain detects danger and our reactions to it is poorly understood. For sure it’s complicated, involving more than just the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Maybe our wise pre-teen had a previous close call with a fall, and the memory of this, encoded and later retrieved by the hippocampus, drove an appropriate fear response.

The point is, our ancestors in many regions had to regularly navigate terrain and climb trees to find food. They probably evolved to do so with risk in mind. A strong respect, if not fear, of heights became ingrained in us over the course of our evolution. Flashing forward: Perhaps when you experience turbulence during a flight, the shaking harkens back to the rocks at the edge of a cliff starting to give way.

In that same ancestral era, however, no one roared along horizontally faster than any creature could propel itself. Therefore, no one died foolhardily before passing on their genes. If anyone was smart enough to fear speed, there was no evolutionary advantage to that fear. Going fast today does not harken back to anything in our evolution, so for most of us, riding in or driving a fast car doesn’t spark fear the way flying does for some.

Could our evolutionary history partly explain why safety standards for automobiles and road infrastructure are weaker than for aircraft? Maybe, but it’s just a hunch.

Why do we fear flying more than driving? Here’s a hunch