There are about 40,000 traffic fatalities per year in the U.S., the equivalent of about one jumbo jet crash every two or three days. Can you imagine the level of panic if planes started crashing at that rate? Or the extreme panic if these planes were being brought down by terrorists rather than mechanical problems?
An earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Southeast Asia, each taking thousands of lives, prompt non-stop news coverage and donations of millions of dollars. A genocide in Rwanda that kills nearly a million gets modest coverage and few donations. Why?
An article I read a few weeks ago mentioned the concept of anchoring, which is a word psychologists use to describe the fact that we sometimes rely too heavily on one piece of information (of questionable relevance) when making judgments. It was mentioned in the context of buying stock. Many stockholders sell or don't sell based on what they paid for it, which, in fact, has no relevance at a later time; the only consideration for selling or holding should be expectations of the stock's future value, not its past value. Yet few people consider this rule.
Past events, even if no longer relevant in the present, often color our judgment of future outcomes. So do large scale events such a plane crashes and natural disasters — they, too, have the power to focus our attention in a way that distorts our perception of more mundane disasters and tragedies.
So we freak out when a plane crashes, but when the same number of people die on the roads in a single day, the staggering number isn't even reported in the national media. Granted, more people are on the roads every day than are in planes (I assume), so absolute numbers may not be a fair comparison, but the point is valid, I think. We have gotten used to the carnage on the streets and highways. It's the price we pay to drive, the cost of doing business.