By Seth Kugel
Which sounds like the most dangerous way to spend your next vacation?
1. Going to Brazil, epicenter of the Zika virus, for the Olympics.
2. Visiting Istanbul, where eight German tourists died in a terrorist attack last month.
3. Taking a road trip through Thailand.
4. Staying home to work on a long-put-off home improvement project.
It’s tricky, but it’s not a trick question: There is no wrong answer. The way that you measure risk is based on complex factors, including personal ones. Mosquitoes may love you, terrorism may have touched you directly, your husband may be a terrible driver, and that project may include asbestos removal.
The number of Americans making such calculations is growing: We’re traveling abroad more often and to more places, perhaps because our globalized world — Starbucks in 65 countries! — seems smaller and safer. Until it isn’t. The Zika virus is spreading through the Americas not long after chikungunya infected thousands of American travelers there and Ebola ravaged West Africa. It’s not just disease: Recent terrorist attacks targeting tourists (Tunisia, Egypt, Istanbul) and tourist areas (Paris) have also made such decisions more wrenching.
“There’s a lot going on in the world,” said Daniel Durazo, director of communications at Allianz Global Assistance USA, which sells travel insurance. “There’s a lot of noise out there about the dangers of traveling.”
Yet we’re generally terrible at adjusting the volume.
“How scared or not you are is an emotion, not a statistic,” said David Ropeik, a risk consultant and the author of “How Risky Is It, Really?” As fans of haunted houses will attest, risk and being scared are two different things. But Mr. Ropeik’s point is that in the battle between your gut and your brain, your gut will win. One way to make sensible choices as a traveler is to nudge your gut toward rationality by feeding it accurate information, which is easier said than done.
Zika and terrorism are the latest high-decibel threats. But there are also some deafening silences. For example, you hear very little about the leading cause of nonnatural deaths among Americans abroad: motor vehicle accidents.
According to the latest figures available from the State Department, 223 Americans died abroad in car, bus or motorcycle accidents between July 2014 and June 2015. Other causes of death (homicide, suicide and drowning) also far outweigh terrorism. Sixteen Americans died of “terrorist action” in that period, all but four in places you already know not to go: Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia.
So before you even think about terrorism, you may want to check road safety in countries you hope to visit. A ranking of countries by car crash deaths per capita, based on a 2014 report by the respected University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, shows that among the 10 most dangerous are two beloved destinations: Thailand and the Dominican Republic.
This is not to suggest that you should rush out and cancel your trip to Punta Cana. There, as in many places in the Dominican Republic, travelers tend to stay in resorts, and it is extraordinarily rare to die in a car accident while lying on the beach. As for Thailand, maybe you’d consider a less ambitious road trip, or domestic flights, though I’m not convinced that driving there is much more dangerous than renting a car in any country where you drive on the “wrong” side of the street. (A New Zealand police officer I met in a rural inn told me one of his main duties was to rush to crashes caused by Americans driving on the right.)
Even staying in the United States doesn’t always protect you. Repeated studies showed that after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Americans opted out of flying and drove instead, resulting in at least hundreds of additional road deaths. In hindsight, it would have been better to fly. But at that time, no one could say for sure if more airplanes would be hijacked, and fear was running high. “Not knowing is vulnerability and powerlessness and that raises precaution instinctively,” Mr. Ropeik said.
A similar sort of uncertainty is playing out now with the Zika virus, helped out by dramatic reports. Some people I know have even conflated the virus’s potential danger to pregnant women — it is suspected of causing a birth defect called microcephaly — with the relatively mild illness it causes in the overwhelming majority of those who suffer symptoms at all.
The antidote is good information. Travelers should seek out information specifically for them like the website of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cautions pregnant women against traveling but restricts its warnings to most others to preventing mosquito bites, rather than changing travel plans. The State Department has yet to issue any travel warnings about Zika (nor does it have any current terrorism-related warnings in Europe, though it mentions Istanbul in its Turkey warning, principally dealing with the southeast part of the country).
Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the C.D.C., told me that even the warning for pregnant women is based on suspected rather than proven links. “In an era of uncertainty,” he said, “it’s reasonable to take a cautious approach and step back, rather than take a cavalier approach that the consequences won’t happen, and miss an opportunity to protect individuals.” But “you don’t want to swing so far the other way and say from now on no one should go to these places,” he said.