Paul Judge: 'So how do you think you are going to die?

From the inaugural lecture by the new chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, given in London
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The Independent Online

Think about the UK and the main causes of death. There are firstly horrific car accidents, plus the dangers of travelling by rail and air. There is the ever-present danger of assault by strangers on our streets, or even by our loved ones in our homes, and even the terrible acts of terrorists. There are freak accidents of people dying from parachuting or drowning while diving. It is not surprising that we are an anxious nation. Death is not the only risk we all take, and serious injury is also terrible, but public policy tends to be driven by deaths rather than injuries.

I would now like to look at the UK death statistics. With our population of 60 million and a 1 per cent annual death rate about 600,000 of us will die this year. This is about 1,700 a day.

How do you think you and those close to you are going to die? Have you worried about going on a train or a plane, about terrorist activity, about what might happen to a child or grandchild being run over in the street? Have you taken some action or deliberately foregone some activity to mitigate these risks? Well let us look at some statistics to see how valid are your fears.

The two largest causes of death are problems with the respiratory system and with cancer. These account for almost two-thirds of all deaths. All diseases together account for 96.9 per cent of deaths. Only 3.1 per cent of all deaths are from these external causes which are the only ones where action other than medicine, surgery or lifestyle can be applied to improve the situation. This means that although each year we have a 1 per cent chance of dying, we have only a 0.03 per cent chance of dying from external causes. On average only 1 in 3,000 of us will die from external causes in the next year.

Humans are not particularly good at estimating risk. We have a tendency to underestimate risk over which we have some control, and to overrate risk over which we have no control.