Comparing Rare Risks

At the beach, sand is more deadly than sharks:

Since 1985, at least 20 children and young adults in the United States have died in beach or backyard sand submersions.

And this is important enough to become someone's crusade?

Posted on June 28, 2007 at 2:05 PM • 53 Comments

Comments

CyberNorrisJune 28, 2007 2:56 PM

Think about the arguments given for all sorts of calls for regulatory bans (guns and SUVs to name a few). When no legitimate argument can be made to counter facts, an emotional plea is often made such as, "If we save just one life...."

So, yes, someone will make this their crusade.

WussifiedAmericaJune 28, 2007 3:00 PM

And it's exactly those folks who end up getting bad legislation passed. What's next? A Crusade against death because 100% of people die? A Crusade against water because people drown from it? A Crusade against food because people choke from it?

Get real - as this blog always points out, just living your life is a risk. It's how people (and governments) end up attempting to legislate LIVING that f*c*s up everyone's sense of scale.

Any loss is a tragic loss, not every loss requires a "crusade" to vilify or scaremonger the cause. If people were still smart enough to truly evolve, we'd just chalk those unfortunate events up to what's called EXPERIENCE (remember those?). If your hand got burnt cuz you put it into a fire, you certainly wouldn't do it again.

AlanJune 28, 2007 3:04 PM

But how many people die from scaremongering every year?

Maybe we need to lead a crusade against scaremongering.

Chris WalshJune 28, 2007 3:10 PM

This is an example of a problem that has a trivial solution (don't dig holes too deep, and if you do, fill them in before you leave).

If the fix is cheap, I say let a couple of zealots spread the word.

By the way, the numbers are almost certainly underestimates. Five minutes with Google led me to http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/pagerender.fcgi?artid=1424727&pageindex=1#page
(Public Health Rep. 1985 Mar–Apr; 100(2): 231–240). In that article, 70 non-construction site inhumations of children were identified in California alone between 1960 and 1981.

It's nice having empirical data when assessing risks.

WussifiedAmericaJune 28, 2007 3:12 PM

Better yet - a Crusade against scaremongers - now THAT I'd sign up for.

Thoria MillgroveJune 28, 2007 3:15 PM

If we allow holes to be dug in the sand, the terrorists win.

Craig HughesJune 28, 2007 3:25 PM

Wow. Almost as many as mad cow disease claimed in the same time period. This sand hole thing is pretty serious.

lizardJune 28, 2007 3:26 PM

"And this is important enough to become someone's crusade?"

I'm sure there are many, many other "crusaders" out there looking for their audience. ABC is giving this bunch their 15 minutes.

Next up on Good Morning America - the "Don't stack your heavy pans inside high cupboards" advocacy group - trying to prevent another 5 head injuries from falling teflon-coated objects.

Ken HaglerJune 28, 2007 3:42 PM

It's not about how important it is. The crusade is against the possibility that someone, somewhere might be having a good time. There are plenty of people on that crusade, having great success, and they would without a doubt be happy to seize on a handful of freak accidents if it means denying tens of millions of children the chance to play in the sand.

AbeJune 28, 2007 3:48 PM

Forbidding or advising people to not dig sand holes is not going to work. The only solution is to ban sand. Pave all beaches with concrete and the problem is solved!

Harry JohnstonJune 28, 2007 4:02 PM

I found this story quite startling; much as if I'd heard about a crusade against building brick walls across motorways, or sticking objects into electrical sockets. All I could think was, "Huh? People do that?"

Personally I'd be astonished to find an 8-foot deep hole in the beach, and I'm sure that in my country (New Zealand) it would lead to a prosecution if the offender could be identified; it's obviously hazardous. Playing in the sand, sure; but who digs ruddy great big holes in the beach?

... I guess it must be an American thing.

John DaviesJune 28, 2007 4:08 PM

@Ken Hagler

"The crusade is against the possibility that someone, somewhere might be having a good time."

Amen to that. We don't seem to be able to let kids learn by experience these days because there's a small possibility that might involve getting hurt.

DriftenJune 28, 2007 4:17 PM

I know this is really about managing risks... but people in our culture sure seem to think they always need to protect other people from them selves. Or like Ken says think someone else is having fun in a way they don't approve of and have to stop them. We have way too many laws in the US and many of them are trying to outlaw things that are already illegal...

Spleen HammerJune 28, 2007 4:21 PM

Well, this person's crusade got you to post about it. They're making more headlines.

Congrats, you're buying into their crusade.

Cool.

jJune 28, 2007 4:27 PM

As long as they keep the "crusade" to being "educational," I guess I don't care.

Originally reported as approximately one death per year from this cause, some older statistics posted by Chris Walsh give it as closer to four deaths per year (though these are not limited to beach sand activities). It would be considered good here if there were only that many deaths of children falling into swimming pools, just in the summer, and just in metropolitan Phoenix. I expect the cost of required fencing around pools actually is justified, not only in terms of drownings prevented but also in terms of liability costs prevented.

Note that this isn't ABC giving someone their 15 minutes of fame; this was originally reported as a health or medical concern in the New England Journal of Medicine!

Dom De VittoJune 28, 2007 4:54 PM

*Bread*

Bread should be banned. Do you know how many people have died after eating bread?? It runs into MILLIONS!

I've not got detailed breakdown for white/brown, but we need legislation to protect our kids.

[ at this point you should either be laughing, or are being laughed at ]

Sez MeJune 28, 2007 5:04 PM

Unfortunately, the beach owners will probably have to do a little theatre, however unnecessary this is. When it happens to them, they may (correctly) argue that it wasn't their fault, but their opponents will put weeping mothers on the stand, point to a history of this happening, and possibly sway a jury. As unfortunate as it is, a little theatre as a CYA measure--possibly something as cheap as warning signs--may be in the beaches best interest.

Never underestimate the power of foolish people.

AikimarkJune 28, 2007 5:26 PM

A few years ago, one of the Darwin Award winners died this way on the coast of NC. At the time his death was first reported, I thought he was just stupid. Little did I realize he would be famously (postumously) awarded the following year.

AnonymousJune 28, 2007 5:43 PM

Aikimark: "A few years ago, one of the Darwin Award winners died this way on the coast of NC. At the time his death was first reported, I thought he was just stupid. Little did I realize he would be famously (postumously) awarded the following year."
-----------------
It's very sad that failure to protect someone else from their own ignorance has become a ticket to wealth by many sue-happy people.

Unix RoninJune 28, 2007 6:39 PM

"I asked them to fill in the hole. They did, but they looked at me like I was interfering," [Gauruder] said.

Gee .... maybe that's because YOU WERE?

Hey, here's an idea: hang-gliding is much more dangerous than digging a hole in the sand. How about Ms. Gauruder takes herself to a hang-gliding meet and pushes her attention on everyone there to tell them what a terrible risk they're taking? Or hey, even better - she could try it at a biker bar!

bobJune 28, 2007 8:51 PM

In the old days, we called these people busybodies. It seems now we call them "crusaders".

I think we should go back to calling them busybodies, and do it to their face, and then make sure they know what a busybody is. You know, by being a busybody yourself and explaining to them the terrible risks of indiscriminate busybodying. Why, I heard just last week about a busybody in Texas who had sand thrown in her face.

Not that I think a REAL busybody would care about being called one, but it might give them a chance to storm off in a huff. Because if you can't get offended and pretend to go mind your own business, there's just no point in being a busybody any more.

JackG'tJune 28, 2007 8:53 PM

I'm glad that some who've commented above have nothing to do with training for operations in potentially hazardous settings such as deserts, mountains, extremely cold and hot climates, rivers, and bodies of water and their shorelines. Some risks are even manmade and not entirely predictable.

It's impractical and unreasonable to constantly grade risks on the curve so as to set a convenient threshhold below which no mention of risk is necessary. Should malignant melanoma risk be statistically compared to drowning risk and to lightning risk in deciding whether sunblock should be recommended? How hard is it to include the possibility of sand collapse in basic beach safety instructions? It could not take long to state orally, or occupy much space in writing.

Oh, and is advising newcomers and children to watch where they step too uncool?

frealekJune 29, 2007 1:14 AM

Where is the frontier between awareness and psychosis ?...
Does it relies more on the way information is pictured or on the receiver's mind ?...

CJJune 29, 2007 2:50 AM

The question is: if sand holes are more dangerous than sharks, and we worry about sharks but not holes, then are we worrying too much about sharks, or not enough about sand holes?

supersnailJune 29, 2007 3:22 AM

Dom@ "Bread should be banned. Do you know how many people have died after eating bread?? It runs into MILLIONS".

Dont be so misguided may millions more have died after eating rice. Bread is a much safer option.

Arsenic would be safer still as very few people die from eating it -- however it is diffcult to obtain because of some crazy legislation.

AndyJune 29, 2007 4:32 AM

More people are killed worldwide each year by coconuts than sharks. As someone who's dived with sharks, and nearly had a coconut land on him, I know which I regard as more dangerous...

erasmusJune 29, 2007 6:40 AM

While you might think its bonkers for someone to embark on a crusade, the examples here were not about folks digging a poncy little moat around a pretty little sand castle, but folks who decide to dig 8' holes on the beach. That's a major construction project!

What's worse, as the sand dries out or soaks up moisture over time it *slowly* becomes less stable; think about what happens as your sandcastle dries out and the turrets turn to dust. Trouble with those trenches is that a catastrophic collapse would tend to happen hours later to someone else. At ~ 3tonnes per cubic metre it doesn't take much collapsing sand to crush a human body.

Bruce does raise an interesting point; a lot of cash and effort goes into the exciting research of shark attacks, but one person who flags a more real problem gets ridiculed. And, unlike shark attacks, there's a simple way to ensure this doesn't become a problem.

OK, I have a vested interest - I once wrote programs to calculate safe angles for soil slopes: I was surprised to find my local area is only really stable at slopes of less than 18 degrees without reinforcement. And there's a road I use where two workers were crushed to death when a shallow 4' trench collapsed on them - not a nice thought. I'm sure that such deaths are far more common than the 'nutter' on the beach thinks.

(As an aside, this flags up a difference between the ethics of professional civil engineers & SW engineering where there's a tendency to hide from liability:
www.raeng.org.uk/policy/ethics/pdf/Statement_of_Ethical_Principles.pdf
If I was the senior engineer on site I would be legally liable in the UK, and IMHO rightly so, as I know what to expect. )

NeighborcatJune 29, 2007 6:53 AM

Wow. This puts my cat's litter box activities in a whole new light. The little beggar is trying to kill me!

But seriously, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Know it, get used to it, then ask yourself which is worse; dying in a manner not of your own choosing, or living that way.

Is dying withered and demented in a hospital bed after a long, risk-free, and utterly boring life really the goal?

Somebody get me a shovel.

DavoJune 29, 2007 8:15 AM

"And this is important enough to become someone's crusade?"

20 deaths in 22 years is about 1 death a year. Now consider: over the past five years, sand has caused more deaths in the United States than terrorists.

Surely if we are spending millions of dollars combating the evils of terrorism, we should be spending even more combating the evils of sand...

Sez MeJune 29, 2007 8:29 AM

Davo: "Surely if we are spending millions of dollars combating the evils of terrorism, we should be spending even more combating the evils of sand..."

Not really the same thing. There is a movement and consciousness behind terrorism, not behind sand. There is a big difference between the accidental and deliberate.

If the WTC was knocked down by a meteor or earthquate and 3,000 died, the comparison would work. If the sand deaths were rigged by a terrorist, the comparison may work.

In these situations, such comparisons are just not rationale.

Bruce SchneierJune 29, 2007 9:23 AM

"Not really the same thing. There is a movement and consciousness behind terrorism, not behind sand. There is a big difference between the accidental and deliberate. If the WTC was knocked down by a meteor or earthquate and 3,000 died, the comparison would work. If the sand deaths were rigged by a terrorist, the comparison may work. In these situations, such comparisons are just not rationale."

Well, "rational" isn't the right word. But you're right; the comparisons simply aren't made.

People have an irrational way of exaggerating human-made threats and downplaying natural, or accidental, ones. It's been documented again and again in psychological studies, and something I've written about before.

But no, it's not being able to make the comparison -- it's believing that for some magical reason few deaths in the deliberate hands of men is a bigger worry than many many threats in the accidental hands of the environment -- or even the accidental hands of men.

paulJune 29, 2007 9:44 AM

This reminds me of the discovery, sometime in the 70s, that more people had died in ostensibly unexplained boating and aviation accidents on or over the Great Lakes region than over the Bermuda Triangle. Did this lead to a re-evaluation of the Bermuda Triangle bunk? No. Instead, somebody started a series of articles and books on the Great Lakes Triangle.

Once you have one overhyped danger (sharks, liquids or solids on planes, whatever) then clearly any danger with a similar risk must receive a similar amount of hype.

But after sand holes are all done, I blench to see the campaign against driving.

AtsahJune 29, 2007 10:03 AM

Overhyped? Absolutely. This is in the silly season category of "Sensationalist Articles on Idiotic Ways To Off Yourself While On Summer Vacation." But in the defense of these crusaders, it's a stupid and entirely preventable way to die.

And, I might add, a particularly horrible one, considering that live burial is so many people's worst nightmare, which would account for all the alarm.

anonymousJune 29, 2007 10:06 AM

@WussifiedAmerica

"What's next? A Crusade against death because 100% of people die? A Crusade against water because people drown from it?" ..... too late water is already a target http://www.dhmo.org/coverup.html ... and that was before the wee for a Wii contest debacle.

(On a more serious note, a little awareness of real risks can't hurt.)

Brandioch ConnerJune 29, 2007 11:18 AM

I think it's more about people needing to do something that they feel can "make a difference".

And you can't make much more of a "difference" than saving someone's life.

And if you can't actually save someone's life, you can do the next best thing and have a "crusade" to "make people aware" so that you might have some involvement with someone not dying.

But it has to be something DIFFERENT. That makes it COOL!

Otherwise these people would be hanging out at crosswalks and street corners ready to yell "LOOK OUT" if a pedestrian seems to be in danger.

AnonymousJune 29, 2007 11:20 AM

"Not really the same thing. There is a movement and consciousness behind terrorism, not behind sand. There is a big difference between the accidental and deliberate."

No there is not. There may be some difference in the approach to protect, but it is ABSOLUTELY IMMATERIAL whether the harm is caused by 'consciousness' (is a dog attack 'conscious'?).

Heart attacks are a bigger risk than traffic accidents, traffic accidents are a much bigger risk than psychotic snipers. Adjusting your level of response to the risk level is the first step to intelligently managing risk.

Callme AlonsoJune 29, 2007 2:50 PM

"And this is important enough to become someone's crusade?"

It might not be as important as finding a cure for lung cancer or as important as founding a global managed security services company, but if it's important to them then give them a break. It's not as if they are tilting at windmills and it's more productive than if they were sitting on their couch playing video games and eating Oreos. Falling in a hole and slowly dying is a rough way to go and there are a few people who want to try to do something about it.

crankJune 30, 2007 10:48 AM

Bruce I think you blew it on this one. You seem to be saying falling in holes in the ground is not dangerous because there aren't that many cases of people falling in holes on the beach and dying and we know about it. Well there's a lot more holes than just on the beach and there's a lot more sandy soil on earth than on beaches. And the soil doesn't have to be sandy to collapse. Holes are dangerous and I think it's fine for people to warn about them. Let's try calling a hole by another name like say "trench". Trench collapses are a serious threat to construction and utility workers. Would you argue with that? Or are you going to say they are unless the trench is in sand on a beach?

X the UnknownJune 30, 2007 6:05 PM

@WussifiedAmerica

Remember: 100% of cancer-victims were addicted to oxygen. Also, oxygen is so addictive that as little as 5 minutes without a "hit" can cause brain-damage! And the vast majority of oxygen-users are also addicted to hydrogen hydroxide, a readily-available industrial solvent.

Oxygen: the ultimate gateway drug.

markmJuly 2, 2007 11:55 AM

Sometimes submergence in the sand isn't necessary. I remember a case thirty or forty years ago in the Sleeping Bear Dunes northwest of Traverse City, Michigan. (Yes, there are sand dunes in Michigan - they're frequently rain-soaked, but are so lacking in plant nutrients that grass can't get a foothold before wind dries them out and shifts the sand.) A child had got out of sight of his parents and apparently fell down a dune face, landed on his head, knocked himself out, and lying there face down inhaled sand and suffocated. At least that's what the coroner's jury finally decided. No one was happy with the verdict, but they never turned up a shred of evidence showing foul play or that anyone else was near.

sarcasmJuly 2, 2007 4:10 PM

Condolances to the families of the 9 people in ten years that drowned in buckets before someone's crusade led to a warning label. I fail to see how we're possibly going to get a warning label on each grain of sand, much less how we're supposed to read them, but I'm sure we'll find a way.

Rod KnowltonJuly 8, 2007 11:36 AM

One problem with this "crusade", and others like it, that I don't see mentioned in these comments (apologies if it was) is the potential reallocation of existing resources away from the prevention of known greater risks.

In this case, the resource is lifeguards and the known greater risk is drowning. I've got relevant quotes and crunched numbers in this post:

http://rodknowlton.com/article/11/how-not-to-assess-risk-falling-in-holes-vs-drowning

Bottom line: People drown around a hundred times as often as die from falling in holes, and at least one yahoo is putting his lifeguards on hole digging patrol.

JackG'tJuly 8, 2007 5:57 PM

Actually, ignoring what happens on the beach would increase the likelihood of missing events in the water that would need attention. There can occur accidents or behaviors on the beach that cannot be ignored by lifeguards, and that would require attention that could otherwise be focused upon swimmers. Preventing such accidents or behaviors, if possible, is the economical approach to the utilization of lifeguard resources. Lifeguards are properly trained to scan the entire environment, without neglecting the high priority of observing swimmers in the water along with water conditions and visible hazards such as boats and debris. Observation of and intervention in beach activities and observation of and intervention in swimming activities are not opposed categories.

Any beach hazard to recreational visitors is also a hazard to emergency personnel, including lifeguards.

Rod KnowltonJuly 8, 2007 7:16 PM

@JackG't,

I understand and appreciate that lifeguards already have safety duties that extend to the beach itself.

These extra duties, as you correctly note, are worthy of attention because can they mitigate other risks, including those to swimmers. This is a trade-off based on the accumulated experience of the profession and a proper understanding of the relative risks.

The fact that fatality rate for falling in holes is less than one per year is an indication that there is *already* sufficient attention being paid to the digging of hazardous holes. To shift the land/water priority based on this "crusade" would be a case of "straining at gnats while swallowing flies".

Given the already infinitesimal risk, the trade-off presented by *increased* interdiction in hole digging is simply not worth it.

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