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Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fear, hype, and hypocrisy

(Garth D. Wiebe, Oct 2016)

The modern world is in a senseless frenzy over the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones burning up. This is fueled by the news media printing sensational stories, as well as readers hungry for sensational stories.

The plea is for everyone to immediately power down their devices and stop using them. Anyone who fails to do so is considered foolish and irresponsible.

Let's bring some sanity to this thinking.

As of the 10/13/2016 U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission recall, 96 devices had burned up out of 1.9 million sold in the U.S. since 8/19/2016. This is approximately 1 in 20,000 devices.

47 incidents caused additional property damage (1 in 40,000 devices), and 13 incidents caused burn injuries (1 in 150,000 devices).

That is quite a high failure rate for a consumer product. There is no question about that. But is the news media hype and public outcry justified?

We all knowingly take risks in life with things that can be potentially dangerous. If it is the case that it is "foolish and irresponsible" to take a risk with a Galaxy Note 7 that could catch fire (possibly causing burn injury and/or personal property damage), then why isn't it "foolish and irresponsible" for anyone to continue to drive automobiles, considering the far greater risk of death, injury, and property damage, why aren't all the automobile manufacturers recalling all the automobiles, why isn't the CPSC mandating those recalls and making it illegal to sell an automobile, and why aren't government agencies and legislators making it a federal crime to drive an automobile on a public road?

Let's consider the risk to death, injury, and property damage by driving an automobile. I personally looked at the publicly available U.S. statistics for automobiles back in 2005, summarizing about 20 years of statistics (1986-2005). These figures are about 10 years old and can be easily recalculated by anyone ( In the last decade they have decreased noticeably, but not profoundly enough for me to bother going back to recalculate them again. Here is what I found:

There were approximately 43,000 automobile deaths per year, average, over the 1986-2005 period of time, which was about 118 deaths per day in the U.S. By comparison, 96 Galaxy Note 7 devices burned up over an 8 week period but did not kill anyone.

There were approximately 200,000 disabling automobile injuries per year, which was over 500 people disabled per day in the U.S. By comparison, 96 Galaxy Note 7 devices burned up over an 8 week period but did not cause any disabilities.

There were approximately 3,000,000 automobile injuries of various kinds per year, which was over 8000 people injured per day in the U.S. By comparison, 96 Galaxy Note 7 devices burned up over an 8 week period and injured 13 people, corresponding to 1 injury every approximately 4 days.

There were approximately 6,000,000 automobile collisions per year, which is over 16,000 cases of property damage per day. By comparison, 96 Galaxy Note 7 devices burned up over an 8 week period, all of which caused property damage (if you include the device itself), and 47 of which caused additional property damage. Including the device as property, that would correspond to about 2 cases of property damage a day and, excluding the device, that would correspond to about 1 case of property damage a day.

Keep in mind that a sizable portion of automobile incidents are the other driver's fault, putting even responsible, defensive drivers at risk. This makes perhaps half of the automobile incidents a fair comparison to the Galaxy Note 7, which are almost never the fault of the owner of the device.

At this point, the astute reader will recognize that although this is a fair comparison on a national level and regarding how newsworthy the Note 7 incidents should be, compared to automobile incidents, it does not apply to the individual level, since there are so many more automobile owners and drivers than owners and operators of the Note 7, and that the span of time for the reported Note 7 incidents is only about 8 weeks. Therefore, let us evaluate one of the statistics, that of the probability of personal injury by automobile vs. Note 7, on an individual use basis, in other words, the risk of being injured by a Note 7 vs. an automobile over an 8 week period of time.

For the automobile, using the 1986-2005 statistics, there were 3 million injuries per year. With a population of 290 million, that would be 1/(3,000,000/290,000,000/365*56) = 1 in 630 probability of being injured by an automobile in an 8 week period of time. To be fair, let's assume that only half the time the driver is at fault. So, the probability of being injured by an automobile through no fault of the operator would be half the previous figure, or roughly 1 in 1300.

To be fair, let's also take into account that not all of the 1.9 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices were in the hands their owners at the beginning of that 8-week time period, when the shipments began. Assuming that the rate of acquisition was constant over that time period, it may be fair to double the number for the statistical risk. Still, that would be a 1 in 75,000 probability of injury for the Note 7, compared to the 1 in 1300 probability of injury by driving an automobile.

Therefore, statistically, you are roughly 60 times more likely to be injured, through no fault of your own, by driving an automobile for 8 weeks, as compared to using a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 for 8 weeks.

In terms of the probability of there being an incident, even if there was no injury or further property damage, there are about double the number of automobile accidents as those that cause an injury, so comparing with the number of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 incidents makes it statistically roughly 15 times more likely that you will get into an automobile accident during an 8 week period of time than that your Samsung Galaxy Note 7 will burn up.

Here is a table summarizing the above rough comparisons:

Samsung Galaxy Note 7
118 deaths per day in U.S. 0 deaths per day in U.S.
500 disabling injuries per day in U.S. 0 disabling injuries per day in U.S.
8000 injuries per day in U.S. 1 injury per 4 days in U.S.
16,000 accidents per day in U.S. 2 accidents per day in U.S.
1 in 1300 probability of being injured per 8 weeks 1 in 75,000 probability of being injured per 8 weeks
1 in 650 probability of accident per 8 weeks 1 in 10,000 probability of accident per 8 weeks

The most minor of "fender-bender" automobile collisions easily incur property damage exceeding the cost of one Galaxy Note 7. It is ironic to view the well-publicized incident of the Florida SUV in flames, set on fire by a Galaxy Note 7. This has great shock value in the news media, but no one was injured and only one automobile was destroyed. By contrast, a significant number of the 16,000 automobile collisions that occurred every day in the U.S. involved the total loss of one or more of the vehicles.

This shows how much public sentiment and opinion is irrationally swayed by emotion and news media hype, as opposed to sober-minded thinking. It is hypocritical and inconsistent to point the finger at the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and create a big fuss about it, while at the same time driving and tacitly accepting the risk of driving an automobile. If it is considered "foolish and irresponsible" to continue to use a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, then why isn't it considered "foolish and irresponsible" to drive an automobile? Why isn't there urgent advice to all drivers to immediately pull over to the side of the road, turn off their engines, and dispose of their automobiles? Why aren't all automobiles subject to recall, or why aren't all automobile drivers prohibited from driving on the public roads, given the disproportionately higher (orders of magnitude greater) risk of death, injury, and property damage?

I am certainly not promoting recklessness, nor am I suggesting that Samsung should not make it a high priority to remedy the problem, since these are much higher than usual failures for a consumer product. But again, if the definition of recklessness includes continuing to use a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, then there are many other risks that are far higher than that, which we accept in life.

As I was writing this article, news accounts have started to surface that an Apple iPhone 7 just exploded and caught fire, causing extensive damage to an automobile in Australia. That isn't the first one, either. Will the iPhone 7 be recalled? Should all smart phones be recalled? Should all electronic devices with lithium batteries be recalled, and the use of lithium batteries be outlawed, since what we have is not fundamentally a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 problem, but a growing lithium battery phenomenon? When will the panic end?

Now, what I have wrote above speaks to a worldly, carnal viewpoint. Indeed, risks to health and welfare have always accompanied life, as long as mankind has existed, and they are too many to begin to list, from so many different kinds of accidents, crime, disease, weather, and anything else. As Christians, we should rather trust God for our health and welfare, rather than live in fear.

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