COVID-19 is no car accident

Dr Marius Sdl
2 min readAug 2, 2020

I keep hearing and hearing that the risk of dying from COVID-19 is currently smaller or comparable to the risk of dying from a car accident. This is an example of naive empiricism.

First, for driving a car there are many rules. For example, in North America you drive on the right side of the road. This rule is comparable to the rule of wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you want to survive you do not drive on the left side of the road aka ignoring distancing and mask wearing rules.

Second, car accidents are very well understood, and your car has many safety systems to prevent an accident and to protect you in case of one. COVID-19 is not very well understood, no effective treatment and no vaccine exists for the moment.

If you die from a car accident it is very likely your own mistake. The probability of dying from a car accident as an innocent bystander is negligible.

This was the overture. The real difference is that COVID-19 is an infectious disease. Car accidents are not contagious. If you decide to kill yourself in a car accident it has no multiplicative effects. You do not start a chain reaction which initiates an exponential growth of other car accidents. COVID-19 is a biological chain reaction, it is the biological equivalent of the Chernobyl accident.

Covid-19 is a systematic risk not only for you but for the whole of society. The United States leadership does not understand that it is rolling dice with the wealth and future of the nation. Individualism has been so excessively emphasized in this country that people do not understand anymore that a minimum of collective action is necessary to enable the survival of the country.

The absorption barrier: you never compare probabilities but expectation values or more generally utilities. The probability of catching COVID-19 is still small, but if you value your life highly, the expected loss still can be infinite and the gamble not worth taking. From the government perspective the risk of you going out of existence may be acceptable, but the value at risk is unacceptable from your individual point of view.

The precautionary principle: car accidents are well understood. COVID-19 is not. An effective vaccine might not exist, might not be long lasting, might have severe short-term or long-term side effects, the virus might mutate in the meantime. The spread of COVID-19 may become exponential and endanger law and order, defense readiness, essential basic services such as water supply or electricity. Until an effective treatment exists it is rational to maximally suppress the virus.

Extreme value theory: when you discuss actions of survival you are not interested in average values but in extremal values. You do not prepare for the next earthquake by assuming the average strength of last earthquakes. You do not want to have a small risk of facing ruin, you do want zero risk.