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What are Your chances of being Killed by a Falling Coconut?

In comparison to your chances of being killed by a shark , what is the relative risk?

Obviously we are talking about the relative risks in places which actually have sharks and coconuts or it wouldn't be a fair test.

Plus, it may seem trivial to state it, but, the risk of death from shark attacks is reduced to zero if you don't go in the water, and your chance of being killed by falling coconuts is reduced to zero if you don't go near any coconut palm trees. However, let's be realistic, because you should be able to go in the water, and you should be able to walk around in the vicinity of the coconut trees, without fear, if you take sensible precautions.

The coconuts v sharks issue has an interesting history to it. A while ago, someone made a claim that "You're more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than to be killed by a shark", or in some versions "More people are killed by falling coconuts than sharks". This has become part of modern folklore, but doubt has been cast on the notion because it has been more recently claimed that someone just made it up rather than doing a proper scientific evaluation.

Now let's be careful about this, because you shouldn't just believe things because someone makes a claim, and you shouldn't dismiss things because someone else claims they made it up. The facts need to be found by evidence and scientific experiment, to the extent that it is possible.

The evidence for shark deaths is reasonably well documented. Every time another tourist is eaten, a big fuss is made in the newspapers and the fact is recorded in history. In contrast, deaths by being hit on the head by a falling coconut are not considered news, although there are some hospital records such as www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6502774?dopt=Abstract which show non-zero death-tolls. The fact is, some people have been killed by falling coconuts. It happens.

Coconut tree over a car parkIn addition to actual deaths, there are also near-misses. People sometimes say that a coconut hit the ground very close to them. Here's a picture of a coconut tree overhanging a car park in Belize, and in a parking space there was a coconut. It would be reasonable to guess that the coconut arrived there by falling off the tree. If someone had parked a vehicle in that space, and the coconut had fallen into the the parking space, there'd have been some damage. Plus, it is known that in tropical places, cars sometimes have dints in them caused by coconut impacts.

Just in case you didn't know, coconuts that fall off trees are not the same as those things seen on a coconut-shy at a fairground or the shelves of purveyors of fruit. The fairground / supermarket coconuts are like the stone in the middle of a peach, and the surrounding fruit is much larger than the stone. The coconut fruit is not just a giant peach, though; it's a big hard leathery object. Here's a picture of the coconut retrieved from the parking space in Belize and placed on top of a laptop to give an impression of size. That's not an eeep, but a full-sized laptop. The coconut fruit is a tough hard item which would be no fun to be on the wrong end of in its descent from a tree. Did someone say these things weigh 2Kg? CoconutNo, they weigh considerably more than that.

Another problem is the muddling up of the data. "People killed in coconut-related incidents" is not the same as "People killed by falling coconuts". If you start lumping-in the figures from people falling out of coconut trees while trying to harvest the coconuts, then it would be like recording as a "shark death" any case of anyone drowning while observing sharks, or dying of a heart attack during a visit to a gift shop selling shark souvenirs, or choking on their popcorn while watching a movie which involved sharks. Shark death data does not include such things, fortunately. A death by shark only counts if the person has been bitten and has died of it. So, the figures are likely to be reasonably reliable. In contrast, the coconut death figures are generally a projection based on scant evidence which was available. This doesn't make them wrong, but it means they are typically more of an "estimate" rather than an absolute fact.

A notable study on deaths by falling coconuts by Dr Peter Barss was based on available evidence in Papua New Guinea, but in absence of a "world coconut deaths database", he used an extrapolation to try to come up with a sensible estimate of the likely numbers of deaths due to falling coconuts worldwide, hence the result "150 deaths due to falling coconuts per year worldwide". Folk can surely cope with scientists making reasonable estimates? For example, the weather forecasters don't actually know for certain what the weather is going to be. They have a good estimate of it from evidence, and the result has a probability. Seismologists don't know exactly when a city is going to be destroyed by earthquake, but they make a reasonable estimation based on previous tremors. So, when you hear scientists making statements about things, please bear in mind that these things aren't absolute facts. "The Sun is 93 million miles away from the Earth". Yes, that's true, but you're assumed to have the good sense to know it isn't always exactly that. It varies by plus or minus 1%. Many scientific prognostications have higher variabilities than that. So, when the WWF say how many tigers there are remaining in the world, they haven't counted them, and the result is probably a figure plus or minus 10%.

With the fatal falling coconut, "150 deaths per year" is even less close to absolute, and could be considered more like "Somewhere around 15 to 1500 deaths per year". Not as unscientific as it might sound, and definitely comparable to the relatively well known estimate of "15 deaths through shark attack per year". This would certainly be useful in terms of answering a question such as "Do sharks or coconuts cause more human fatalities per year?". From the limited data available and from reasonable estimates made by people who have a good idea about chance, yes, more people die of falling coconuts than die of being eaten by sharks.

So, anyway, how can you reduce your chance of being killed by falling coconuts? Here are a few helpful ideas:

* Just as surely as when you open up a live power socket, you know there is danger, so be aware that coconut palm trees have some danger associated with them.

* Get a hat. It doesn't have to look like a naff safety measure. It can be an adventurer's hat. A pith-helmet might look a bit oldfashioned but has a good impact resistance. A jungle explorer's hat, again both practical and with some style. There are also possibilities of hats which are airy enough for the tropical conditions (like a Panama hat) but with an inbuilt crumple-zone made of something energy-absorbing.

* Harvest the coconuts before they fall off. Of course you can't do that in unexplored territory. However, where there are coconut trees along the streets and in gardens, it's a practical measure that can be taken. Harvesting coconuts is not easy, and it can be dangerous because of the height, and the tendency for there to be scorpions in amongst the stuff at the top. Nevertheless, there are people who consider the harvest is worthwhile. Consider, though, it's an ongoing maintenance task like mowing the lawn, except that mowing the lawn doesn't involve heights, scorpions, and coconuts.

* Territorial specification. I've seen this at some hotels in tropical places. They don't put an exclusion-zone around the palm trees; they make the region near to the trees into garden, which guests choose not to trample on. There is no incentive for anyone to hang around under the trees. It works.

* Time-based risk exposure. It may seem odd, but I don't mind visiting active volcanoes. There's a risk of being killed, but the probability is small. In contrast, I don't feel comfortable with the idea of living near an active volcano. The risk over a long period is multiplied up. Similarly, with coconut trees, I don't mind walking under them as the risk is small. A night's sleep in a hammock under a coconut tree? Maybe not!

Proposed Mad Scientific Experiment to assess the risk from Falling Coconuts:

The idea is this: Get a crash-test dummy, or as that's quite expensive, get a shop dummy, and set it up standing underneath a coconut tree. Then see how long it is before a falling coconut smashes its head. Having a garden with some coconut trees in would help, and although dummies standing under trees would look strange as garden ornaments, the results over a period would converge to give an approximate risk factor of the form "expected mean time between failure of humans standing underneath coconut trees". It might turn out to be a year, or several years, but we'll know more after the experiment!

Update: I have now moved to Panama, and I have a garden which has coconut trees. If you know anyone who has any shop mannequins they'd like to part with, I am willing to run an experiment in which mannequins will stand under trees with coconuts high above, and we will see if any get nobbled! This is quite a showy experiment and should attract a lot of attention. (Imagine the online photos!). If you'd like to contact me maybe we can put this good publicity to good effect.

A similar study has been done on the safety of passengers on aircraft, and air travel is so safe that the time you'd need to spend on an aircraft to accumulate a risk high enough to rival that of death through heart attack, old age, etc, is similar to that of a human life-expectancy. In other words, if you lived your entire life as a passenger on an aeroplane, you'd probably die of old age rather than of crashing.

Standing under a coconut tree, probably more dangerous. How dangerous, though, we'll see after the experiments!

Also see chance of being struck dead by lightning

Of course there are much more significant dangers when walking around in the jungle. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, other things beginning with "S", and various other toxic animals, and toxic plants. In unexplored jungle the highest risk factor is said to be "deadfall", which is being hit by dead wood falling from high up.

If you'd like to be adventurous and to visit some of the places that have such things as sharks and coconut trees, have a look through some of the more exotic places at the Travel page. (Also see travel insurance!)

Yes, that laptop is the same one on the page about the Stolen Laptop. (Crimes account for more deaths in Belize than falling coconuts)