Friday, March 13, 2009

Alert to the Wrong Things

Light bulb sign reading AMBER ALERT
I knew I was going to like what the Star Tribune's Gail Rosenblum had to offer as a columnist, and today's column, called "Well-meaning Amber Alerts stoke fear of rare danger" proved it.

Without trivializing the possible danger to the particular child involved each time the alert has been used, Rosenblum points out that of the 21 alerts in Minnesota since 2002 none of them have been stranger abductions. Instead, they were usually caused by non-custodial parents, or in some cases, another acquaintance of the missing child.

There are about 115 stranger abductions nationally each year; about two-thirds of the children in these cases are recovered safely. Let's see. In 2006, there were 73.7 million children (under 18) in the U.S., so that means a child theoretically has a one in 640,000 chance of being abducted by a stranger in any given year. And, based on the "safely returned" rate, a child has only a one in almost 2 million chance of being significantly harmed by the stranger.

Compare these numbers to any U.S. resident's annual chance of:

  • Being struck by lightning: 1 in 400,000
  • Dying while an occupant in a car: 1 in 20,331
  • Dying from drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 861,939
  • Dying from choking on food: 1 in 343,179
  • Dying from suicide: 1 in 9,085
  • Dying from assault with a firearm: 1 in 24,005
(Odds-of-dying figures are from the National Safety Council, 2005 data; lightning odds from the National Weather Service.)

Of course, it's easy to remember the isolated cases where a child has been abducted by a stranger, and share the horror of the parents, family and nearby community.

But it's not something to base public policy on, and certainly was not a reasonable basis for the mass hysteria that is part-in-parcel of being a parent these days.

In fact, it makes me want to go and read Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog. I think I will. Meanwhile, thanks for the column, Gail.

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