What Are the Chances I Die Today? - Pacific Standard

What Are the Chances I Die Today?

Noah Davis calculates the odds of his demise on an ordinary day in New York City.
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(PHOTO: DARKGEOMETRYSTUDIOS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: DARKGEOMETRYSTUDIOS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Late last week, I found myself reading an article in The New York Timesdetailing one artist-turned-activist's plan to give Swiss citizens a monthly check for being alive. Cut to Monday morning, and I find out that the world will end on February 22, courtesy of the Norse god Odin's death at the hands of Fenrir the wolf. (Or something along those lines. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 30th Jorvik Viking Festival is also scheduled for the 22nd. So I don't know, mark your calendars?)

Because my brain works in strange ways and/or because I spend most of my days sitting at home, staring out at the window trying to think about things to write, these two stories got me wondering when I was going to die.

The Internet will give you a wide variety of answers. Death-clock.org said I had until Tuesday, November 30, 2060. DeathTimer.com chopped off 11 years—November 12, 2049, specifically—and listed my cause of death as a fight with Chuck Norris. If I get killed by a 109-year-old Chuck Norris, so be it. Also: Screw you, DeathTimer.com. A site affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business had a remarkably complex survey and ultimately decided that I would meet my doom on August 2, 2063. TheDeathClock.com came with a malware warning. Since my untimely demise is what was being considered, not that of my already failing MacBook, I closed that tab.

That was a fun exercise but so abstract. The better question, or at least the more relevant one to me, right now in this moment, is what are the chances that I'm going to die today? I don't live a particularly dangerous life, but nearly everything we do has inherent risks, right? Could today be the day? Let's try to find out. (If you'd like more, there's a book about such matters and Pacific Standardinterviewed one of the writers over the summer.)

These two stories got me wondering when I was going to die.

FIRST, SOME OF THE obvious risks. I have to take the subway to Harlem later tonight. In 2012, 55 people died on the tracks (up from eight in 2011), but there were 1,654,582,265 total riders. That’s about one death for every 30 million riders and about one death per week.

I might take a taxi back from Harlem. Seventy-three people lost their lives in traffic accidents in New York City in 2012, which, while tragic, is a low number considering there are more than 27 million taxi rides alone in a single year. That doesn't include the number of regular cars, livery cabs, buses, etc. Odds of dying in a traffic fatality today are well into the millions to one. It's actually considerably more dangerous to walk, as 148 pedestrians died in 2012, but that is still extremely unlikely. Biking would be another risk, with 18 cyclists dying in 2012, but biking is actually getting safer as awareness grows.

There's always the chance, albeit a vanishingly small one, that I could fall into the Gowanus Canal while riding my bike over one of the bridges. While no one is exactly sure what would happen if I drank some of the water and while it wouldn't be a good thing for my health, it probably wouldn't kill me. So that's not a worry. That third arm I grow, however....

I might get a call from an editor about a story and need to get on a plane immediately. (Hey anonymous editors, are you reading?) The annual risk of being killed in a plane crash is about one in 11 million, but that generalizes over the entire population. A NOVA investigation pegged the figure for someone like me who flies fairly frequently—at around one in two million. But that's yearly, not daily, so the chance that today would be the day is obviously smaller.

Speaking of unlikely, I spent Saturday at Princeton where there's a meningitis outbreak. Bloomberg informs me that 10 percent of the student body is carrying the bacteria but only one in 1,000 are getting sick. Still, up to 10 percent of people with symptoms die within 48 hours. I haven't started coughing yet, so I figure I'm clear at least until Wednesday.

I'm playing squash this evening, and there's always the chance of a sudden cardiac incident. They are rare in 31-year-olds, and I haven't shown any warning signs, but these things come out of nowhere. I couldn't find any odds, but one group estimated that 10.1 in every one million participants would suffer a sports-related death.

It's about lunchtime now—I want to be properly fed for my game this evening—and in recent months, I've choked a few separate times because I eat too quickly and I am a moron. Odds of dying in a given year from choking on food are one in 370,035. Multiple that by 365 and I have a roughly one in 135 million chance of dying today from choking on food. But, again, I'm kind of dumb that way and have a history of choking, so let's bump it up to one in 100 million. Still not likely.

I could continue for quite some time while trying to determine the ways I'll die today but spending too much time on the Internet is bad for my health. There are always more things that are causes for concern, unseen forces that could send me flying off this mortal coil. But, thankfully, my impending doom doesn't seem too likely. In other words, I will probably live to see another day. Bring it on Walker, Texas Ranger.

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