Friday, April 28, 2006

Don't Look Back

A friend of mine was recently taking a look at the World BASE Fatality List and noticed that a seemingly large percentage of the deaths reported there involved a wingsuit. I hastened to point out that his comment said more about the dangers of misreading statistics than it did about the dangers of using a wingsuit. To begin with, if you read the list carefully you will see that all but possibly one of the deaths that occurred in a wingsuit had nothing to do with the wingsuit itself. More importantly, there's a high rate of wingsuit accidents in BASE jumping because there's simply a high rate of accidents in base jumping. Wingsuits are just more common among BASE jumpers than they are among regular skydivers. And this is because wingsuits actually make BASE jumping safer. Jumping off a building, antenna, span, or earth is more dangerous than jumping out of a plane for two reasons (to be perfectly obvious about it): 1) There's less time to open a parachute, less time to straighten things out if there's a problem, and no time to use a reserve (so some BASE jumpers don't even wear them). 2) There's the added worry of hitting the building or cliff you just jumped off of. Wingsuits reduce both of these risks by keeping jumpers in the air longer and moving them away from whatever edifice they might have jumped off. There have almost certainly been lives saved by wingsuits. The fact that there have been only two non-BASE related wingsuit deaths ought to help illustrate the point that wingsuited jumps are not inherently more treacherous than the wing-free variety.

If you're a BASE jumper and can point to a time when a wingsuit has clearly helped you steer out of a mess, I'd love to hear about it.


Altai said...

This is a good statistics example to understand the relation between the correlation of two variables and
"Cause and Effect".

Anonymous said...

you have to take into account the fact that when you are skydiving out of a plane, in the open sky, there is less chance of catching a thermal draft off the cliff you are very close to when base jumping, especially with a wingsuit, which leaves more room for operator error.

Dr Abramovsky said...

As a science PhD with many statistics courses in my vita, I couldn't agree more with Altai's statement.