ONE of the less well-known statistics of the September 11th attacks in 2001 were the 1,595 people who died on America’s roads in the year after the incident.

How were these deaths related? The US public’s response to 9/11 was to stop flying and drive to their destinations instead. However, the chances of dying in a hijacking compared to being killed in a car crash are substantially smaller: a 1 in 135,000 chance, compared to 1 in 6,000 on the roads. The switch to car travel led to increased traffic, which in turn led to increased deaths – an additional 1,595 according to researchers.

This anecdote comes from a book I’m currently reading called Risk by Dan Gardner. The book, as the title suggests, is about risk and the misconceptions of human attitudes towards it. The 9/11 story is a case in point: the instinctive response to the coverage was to drive rather than fly, even though that decision carried by far the greater potential risk.

This week, Novichok is back in the news with the desperately sad death of Dawn Sturgess. For all the hard work encouraging people back to visiting Salisbury again, this latest turn of events is difficult to deal with. Once again, the media have descended on the city with a predetermined narrative in mind. The Mail, the Sun and the Star are just some of the newspapers to have described the city being in ‘lockdown’ over the last few days. I know several people interviewed by journalists determined to find a local resident ‘in panic’, rather than reporting how people were actually feeling.

But this media reporting, however deeply unhelpful, isn’t the root problem here. As Dan Gardner’s book describes, such coverage plays on our instinctive misunderstanding of risk. A study by psychologist Paul Slovic in the 1970s asked the public to rank a list of thirty activities and technologies in terms of the most dangerous. In comparison to the actual fatality rates of each, the rankings were wildly out: nuclear power came out top, despite being one of the safest items on the list. Slovic argued that people’s risk-perceptions were skewed when something had ‘catastrophic potential’, was something ‘unfamiliar or novel’ and when our understanding of it was limited.

Novichok, clearly, presses all these buttons. But while it is easy to feel fearful, remember that the risk remains incredibly small. As leading scientist Andrea Sella said of the Novichok container to this week, ‘if a visitor to Salisbury or somebody living there walks past whatever this thing is, they're not going to inhale it … for the general public, it’s not really an issue providing they don’t go sticking their fingers in funny places.’