Leading Causes of Death Among Travelers: A Hierarchy of Risks

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by Robert McGarvey

 

You may die when you travel abroad.  2466 of us did in the period 2011-2013, per data from the Centers for Disease Control.

But just maybe what you fear is not what will kill you. And what you take for granted, may.

Terrorism is causing many of us to cancel vacas to Paris, Belgium, and I even hear of people skittish about Berlin, Madrid and Rome.

Understand: I am all in if you are afraid of Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Libya.

If you are especially cautious, you might cross off Turkey, Egypt, Kenya, Venezuela, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and a few more places.

I would not quibble with this, tho I would note that at least a few of those places (Venezuela and Honduras for instance) have a lot more worries about crime than terrorism. A criminal may kill you in Honduras but you are not likely to bump into any terrorists there.

But there are places I would not go and most of them were just named.

Which brings us to the money question: if thousands of us die abroad, what kills us?

This chart sums it up in one picture. (Deaths in wars are excluded from this count.)

The single biggest killer – eliminating 600 of us, nearly a fourth in that CDC count – is road accidents.  

“The real risk is motor vehicle accidents – that’s the greatest threat,” agreed Phil Sylvester,  a safety expert with travel insurer World Nomads.

Have you ever been in a speeding car in India, for instance? Be afraid, be very afraid.

Even if you do not set foot in a car, you may be killed as a pedestrian in India, but also in many other nations.

In many countries – particularly in the developing world – road infrastructure is wretched, traffic laws are never obeyed, and the only thing that keeps motor vehicle deaths down are the horrendous traffic jams where nothing moves more than a mile or two an hour.

Countries with frightening traffic related death counts include Angola, Benin, the Central Africa Republic, Mozambique, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, Sudan, and Uganda.

For travelers 55 and older, by the way, the leading cause of death is what you would predict: cardiovascular disease. By most counts, heart related deaths account for one in two American deaths abroad. In that vein, Jim Hutton, chief security officer at travel assistance company On Call International, said: “Most of the cases we deal with are medical.”

This CDC list is only a count of deaths from non natural causes.  

Leading cause #2 of non natural deaths: Homicides, with over 500 deaths.  Cf. the comments on Honduras above.

Said Sylvester, “your chances of dying in a terrorist incident are one in 20 million.” Your chances of dying in a mugging in Central or South America or parts of Asia just are higher.

Cause 3: suicide, with almost 400 victims. Mexico is where the largest number are recorded.  South Korea is 2.  Germany, Thailand and Costa Rica fill out the top five.  

That is a hard one to parse and it also is fact that different nations are quicker than others to label a death a suicide. (In the US we often prefer “accidental overdose.”) The US State Dept., which gathers these data, admits that very probably the count is incomplete – but nobody ventures an alternative guess.

Cause 4: Drowning. Per the CDC, “Drowning accounts for 13% of all deaths of US citizens abroad. Although risk factors have not been clearly defined, these deaths are most likely related to unfamiliarity with local water currents and conditions, inability to swim, and the absence of lifeguards on duty. Rip currents can be especially dangerous, as are sea animals such as urchins, jellyfish, coral, and sea lice. Alcohol also contributes to drowning and boating mishaps.

“Drowning was the leading cause of injury death to US citizens visiting countries where water recreation is a major activity, such as Fiji, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Costa Rica.”

No other cause merits special notice because, by CDC count, none of them produces that many corpses.  In that bucket are all terrorist related deaths.
How to stay safe overseas? Simple. Avoid nations with horrible roads (at least don’t get in cars). Avoid nations with high violent crime rates. Avoid nations with lots of gun toting terrorists (mainly in the Middle East and Africa).  Just take those three  precautions and you’ll be as safe overseas – maybe safer – than you are in the US.

Hotel Insecurities: How Safe Are We In Our Rooms?

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The creepy video that has been making the rounds got me to wondering: Just how safe are we in hotels?

The video in question shows a security expert, Jim Stickley, breaking into a hotel safe – using a tiny screwdriver and a bit of wire – in a matter of fast seconds.

These are the very safes we are urged to stash our valuables in of course. (Note: I never use them, haven’t ever. There always are better places to hide stuff in rooms.)

If the safes aren’t safe, what else isn’t safe in today’s hotel room?

Let me count the ways. From faulty information security practices to much worse, hotels in fact create a lot of risk for every traveler.

For instance: we all know it is increasingly unsafe to use credit cards at hotel gift shops or restaurants.  Hilton, Trump, White Lodging, Destination, Mandarin Oriental – the list of breached hotels where hackers stole credit card data goes on and on.  

Maybe the poster child is Wyndham which, said the FTC, suffered three breaches in two years.  Hundreds of thousands of consumer accounts were compromised, per the FTC.

An obvious conclusion: as an industry hotels simply have not invested appropriately in cybersecurity and that is dumb because hotel guests are – almost definitionally – attractive targets to crooks. There may be some hotels that have got the message but the norm seems to be skinflint security that hackers make a mockery of.

One conclusion: never use a debit card at a hotel.  It just is unwise because protections are fewer than with credit cards. With the latter, generally, losses are capped at $50 (often $0 at many issuers). With debit cards losses can be much higher.

But my advice: pay with cash, or sign to your room, at hotel gift shops and restaurants – and really think about moving your business to places that take Apple Pay, where the tokenization of data will probably keep you safe in hotels.  Apple Pay thus far has limited availability at hotels but the numbers likely will grow, fast.  

Of course you also know: don’t trust hotel WiFi – it’s child’s play for a criminal to sniff all on the network and even to grab data out of thin air – and hotel business centers are petri dishes for malware. I won’t even print out boarding passes in business centers and, as for WiFi, I create my own hotspots because that is vastly safer.  

While we are at this, just don’t trust hotel room locks.  Break ins remain common, sometimes even while the victims are sleeping in the rooms.  

As for the door locks themselves, apparently many have known vulnerabilities that make them easy to pick.  In one well know gambit a dry eraser marker is used to pop open doors.  Oh, the chains too are typically easy to neutralize.

Hotels, too, attract petty criminals – such as the armed robber who made off with 3000 Euros from a money changer in New York’s Plaza Hotel.  

And sometimes slick, smart criminals such as the perpetrators of the $153 million jewelry heist at an Intercontinental in Cannes.  

And then there are the really big worries. Off and on – such as immediately after the 2008 takeover of the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai by murderous terrorists – there are fevered discussions of how hotels are tempting and obvious targets for terrorists. But in the US – certainly outside Manhattan and Washington DC – there does not appear to be much sophistication about security. Certainly nothing I would stake my life on.

All this said, when I do an inventory of my own losses at hotels over decades of travel it comes down to a few bucks in padded charges on bar bills. Never anything stolen from my room. Under $100 on total losses.

But still I will tell you this: I long ago ceased to have any confidence in hotel security. It just is not consistent and often it is no good. I do my own security and I suggest similar to you. Trust yourself and your preparations and your sleep – in whatever bed you find yourself – will indeed be safe and sound.