I have an unbelievably curious 8-year-old son named Oscar. He’s constantly asking questions about things—all kinds of things,—to the point where I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a kid so eager to learn. This is a good thing, by the way. The most interesting, charming, successful, happy people I know all tend to have a common trait: they’re genuinely interested in the world and people around them. Whilst this augurs well for my son, it comes at a price. For my wife and I, it means getting hit with the most random torrent of enquiries, often at the most random moments. Trying to parallel park, I get, “Dad, how did the first humans make tools without any tools to make these tools?”. Wrestling suitcases off of the baggage carousel, I’m quizzed, “Dad, why don’t seagulls have eyebrows?”. It gets exhausting as he gets older, and the questions inevitably become more difficult to answer. So, for his birthday last month, my wife bought him a Google Nest. We were often having to Google his questions anyway, so why not cut out the middle man? Let him ask Google directly. Perfect solution? Not quite, but it does help spread the load. When it came to my favourite question, though, I thought I’d let Google take a rest and tackle the query myself.
My favourite question popped up last night, just as I was tucking my son in. “Dad, what’s the most dangerous animal?”. Now this is a a good question for a Dad who runs a data science business focusing on human health and well-being, because helping people identify and quantify risk so they stay alive (and healthy!) is what we do. At HeadUp Labs, we’re really good helping people identify what their big risks are. But what are the biggest risks to your kids? It’s not something like heart attacks or strokes… so, what is it? Hint: it’s something much bigger.
Firstly, let’s get a couple of things straight. By ‘dangerous’, I mean that it’s dangerous to you, me, and Oscar. A blue whale is outrageously dangerous to krill—it eats 4 tonnes of krill per day. But, who cares? We’re talking about what’s the most dangerous animal to a human being. What is, statistically speaking, most likely to kill us? What should we genuinely be fearful for, understand better and make allowances for?
The second thing for us to clear up is that we live in Australia, a place renowned worldwide for more deadly creatures than you’d like to count. So, we probably over-index compared to other places. We’re home to 20 of the 25 most venomous snakes in the world (including the entire top 11!) and a frightening number of deadly spiders. To give you a taste, we share our space with the Sydney Funnel Web Spider. Their venom is so potent, that a bite will kill an adult in under thirty minutes, and a child in just under fifteen. If that didn’t already raise every hair on your back, these spiders are downright aggressive. When threatened, they’ll bite repeatedly without hesitating. Their fangs can pierce a human fingernail, or even a shoe (!), so if you spot a Sydney Funnel Web Spider… Cross the street. Fast.
Think that you can avoid these critters by jumping into the sea? Try again, my friend. Wade into the sea and you’ll meet the blue-ringed octopus and the cone snail, each of which deliver deadly toxins that will paralyse a human and kill in minutes. Fun! You might bump into the box jellyfish (although, I seriously recommend that you don’t). This jellyfish’s 15 tentacles grow to 10-feet-long and are lined with thousands of stinging cells. As if that doesn’t sound bad enough, the stinging cells contain toxins that simultaneously attack the heart, nervous system, and skin cells. Talk about a triple threat! The good news is that there’s an anti-venom, but… the bad news is that most people die before they’re brought back to shore. If you’re wanting to breathe a sigh of relief because you’re on solid ground, just watch out for the birds—there’s one that can practically kill with just one look: the cassowary. Its muscular legs pack a mean kick, all the while wielding three claw-tipped toes. If a cassowary feels threatened, it’ll leap up and strike out with these dagger-like weapons, inflicting potentially lethal wounds to internal organs, and causing severe bleeding. (I should probably mention right now that Australia is a great place to visit, and even live. After all, millions of us live here without so much of a peep of these mighty monsters!)
If that doesn’t convince you enough, then, well… staying home could be the real danger here. Got a four-legged friend with a tail and a wet nose? Yep, man’s best friend is also a killer. Twenty-five thousand people are killed each year by dogs—that said, it’s rarely owners being attacked by pets, and more generally, wild dogs passing on rabies. So give your pooch an extra pat (if you dare…)
But, now… let’s line up the big reveal. In third place, the deadliest creature is a human. Of course, that’s due to homicides—the threat you face being killed by another human with either a gun (approximately 40%), a sharp object (around 25%), or something else, like poisoning (roughly 35%). You’re now probably thinking, “Ah ha! I’m onto you, smartypants. It’s the mosquitos at number one!”. And you were almost right! In 2nd place, clocking in at 3mm at their smallest, we have the common mosquito. The sheer number of deaths each year caused by pathogens transmitted from mosquitos to humans is astonishing: nasty diseases like malaria, encephalitis, elephantiasis, yellow fever, dengue, West Nile virus, and Zika. The WHO estimates that roughly 725,000+ deaths each year is attributable to mosquitoes. That’s a lot of damage from something so small. So, what’s the deadliest creature of all?
The deadliest creature of all—no matter whether you live in Australia, the UK, the Americas, or anywhere in Europe or Africa and Asia—the most dangerous animal is overwhelmingly a human in a car. For a child growing up like Oscar, the biggest threat that he and his siblings face in reaching adulthood is you, a human in a car. You, distracted and rushing to get to work. You, speeding down a street where children are playing. You, on your phone trying to multitask and send a text. You, who thought you’d have an extra glass of wine before you got behind the wheel. You, changing the song you’re listening to instead of focusing on the child on their bicycle in your blind spot. And it’s not just you; it’s all of us. We’ve built cities and towns and suburbs so that the most dangerous animals of all—humans in cars—are given a sense of entitlement. Look at how 80% of your street is given over to ensuring that cars can move quickly or be parked, all at the expense of you, me, and Oscar. Real people. Start to notice how road deaths are reported as ‘accidents’, where a ‘silver Audi’ mounted a curb and killed children at a bus stop. No, not the driver! It was the silver Audi.
The media uses language that removes any human agency, reinforcing this removal of responsibility. There’s a saying amongst the cycling community, that if you want to murder someone and you don’t want to go to prison, then use a car. The sentences handed out to car drivers who have killed people are generally very sympathetic towards the perpetrator. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Netherlands is a glimpse of what every city and town could be: it has the world’s most healthy happy children, and its streets are filled with bike paths. This didn’t happen by accident (after all, things on the road rarely do). The Dutch got their bike paths by focusing on safety for children. Cars made the roads treacherous there in the same way they are where you live. So, what changed? In the 1970s, after 450 children were killed on the roads in a single year, the Dutch began a “Stop de kindermoord” (stop the child murder) campaign. And it worked.
What’s the moral of the story here? Well, the Dutch identified the danger and addressed it. Simple. Shouldn’t we do the same when it comes to our health? Admittedly, the risks may not always be as obvious as a venomous snake, box jellyfish, or a human in a car… But that’s where we can help. Fortunately, at HeadUp, our whizzbang team of scientists can help you identify those health risks and provide you with personalised, actionable insights… so you too can do as the Dutch did.
So, there you have it: the deadliest creature on earth is a human in a car. Until we fear this thing, we won’t do anything to stop it being so deadly. Yet, we easily could. After all, we’re the ones who made it so.