I used to belong to a ski club that traveled often to the breathtaking mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. I was friends with a group of New York City firefighters who also belonged to the club. Once, instead of taking a bus, I decided to take my car and split the driving with a couple of these men.
I’m scrupulous about wearing seat belts and making sure all my passengers do too. In the United States, it’s estimated that seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half. They saved 12,802 lives in 2014 (the last year I could find statistics for.)
But these firefighters refused to put on a seat belt.
I was baffled. I’d once heard a rescue worker say he feared that his car might plunge off a bridge into water. “If I’m wearing a seat belt,” he explained, “I might not be able to get out of the car in time. The belt might get stuck and I’d be trapped.”
The reality, though, is that almost all deaths occur when a person is thrown from their car during the crash. If this man actually did plunge off a bridge (an unusual occurrence) his seat belt would prevent him from hitting his head and getting knocked unconscious. Even people in violent car rollovers frequently walk away unharmed because of seat belts.
I gave this information to these firefighters, all the time wondering why they didn’t know this already. They were, after all, in the rescue business.
“I’m not afraid of getting trapped in the car,” they told me.
“Then what is it?”
Here was their startling response: “I don’t wear a seat belt because when your number’s up, your number’s up, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I was speechless. It’s true that you could do everything right in life and still die. But why couldn’t they see that life is a game of increasing your odds of survival?
It reminded me of people who tell me they smoke because, “My grandfather smoked his whole life and lived to 100. And the neighbor next door was a runner and health nut, and he had a heart attack at the age of 36.”
People make up stories to comfort themselves or to enable them to continue risky behavior.
But what did the firefighters get out of not wearing seat belts? They were more comfortable in the car? Not really. They were stubborn, or stupid? No.
When I thought about it, I realized it was a clear case of magical thinking.
These men were were protecting themselves. Here’s how:
If you want to live a long time, it’s a good idea to run away from fires and not into the center of a burning building.
But it’s the job of a firefighter to run towards danger, not away from it. How do you override the natural fear that keeps everyone else away from the flames?
Here’s how: tell yourself a story that defends you from that fear.
“It’s out of my control. I trust that when it’s my time to die, that’s what will happen. Most of the time, I’ll be fine, no matter what I do.”
This thought gave them the courage to risk their lives over and over.
Still, I wished they’d wear seat belts.
Have you ever been baffled by the magical thinking of others?