Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By TheSurvivorClub.org
updated 3/13/2009 8:36:26 AM ET 2009-03-13T12:36:26

It’s called paraskevidekatriaphobia: a morbid or irrational fear of Friday the 13th.  It's believed that as many as 25 million Americans will change their behavior today because of superstition: They’ll stay away from shopping malls and won't set foot on airplanes. The cost of all this fear comes close to $800 million per day in lost business, according to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in North Carolina.

So what’s the truth?  Is Friday the 13th hazardous to your health?  Are you better off staying home today?  I’ve spent the last few years studying who lives and dies in all kinds of everyday crises.  When it comes to Friday the 13th, there’s some good news, some bad news and one thing you can definitely do to improve your chances.

It's actually safer than an average Friday
On the bright side, a recent study suggests that Friday the 13th is actually safer than the average Friday. Dutch researchers with the Center for Insurance Statistics looked at traffic accidents, fires and thefts and found there were fewer incidents on Friday the 13th than regular Fridays. Do people drive and behave more carefully on Friday the 13th?  Or do they just stay home, avoiding black cats and ladders?  “I find it hard to believe that it is because people are preventatively more careful,” a Dutch statistician explains, “but statistically speaking, driving is a little bit safer on Friday 13th.”

Nothing to fear but fear itself
On the dark side, a Finnish study in 2002 found that women have a 63 percent greater risk of dying in traffic accidents on that date. Simo Nayha, the Finnish researcher, believes that fear causes them to crash. “It is not inconceivablethat on Friday the 13th,” Nayha writes, “women who are susceptible to superstitionsobsess that something unfortunate is going to happen, whichcauses anxiety and the subsequent degradation of mental andmotor functioning.”

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The Finnish study is supported by earlier data published in the British Medical Journal.  Researchers examined auto accidents on Friday the 6th and Friday the 13th over a three year period. “Friday 13th is unlucky for some,” they concluded. “The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended.”

Beware of the number 4, not 13
Professor David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego who loves to investigate phenomena like the fear of Friday the 13th, examined 47 million computerized death certificates and found no spike in “white mortality” on the thirteenth of every month.

However, Phillips noticed a surprising death spike on the 4th of every month and he coined an elegant name for it: the Baskerville Effect.  It comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery "The Hound of the Baskervilles"where a character suffers a fatal heart attack after being terrorized by a demonic dog. On the fourth of every month, Phillips says, there’s a spike in coronary-related fatalities among Americans of Japanese and Chinese ancestry. Across the United States, he found 13 percent more Asian American cardiac-related deaths on the fourth than expected. In California, where these populations are concentrated, he discovered 27 percent more deaths. 

In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, the words for “four” and “death” are almost identical, Phillips says, and many Asians are superstitious about the number. Indeed, in hospitals and hotels in the Far East, the number 4 is avoided just like the number 13 in parts of the Western world. Phillips tested and rejected all sorts of theories to account for the death peak on the fourth of every month. In the end, he concluded that fear connected to the number 4 was the only plausible explanation. “The Baskerville effect exists both in fact and in fiction,” he declared in the British Medical Journal.

Bottom Line:  You might want to exercise extra caution on Friday the 13th (or the 4th of every month), but you shouldn’t be afraid.  Indeed, if you’re fearful of anything, you should worry about other people who suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia. Avoid them on the roads.  Steer clear of them on sidewalks. After all, it’s not the day or date that will get you. It’s the fear.

Ben Sherwood is the author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, a New York Times bestseller.  A former executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America and senior broadcast producer of NBC Nightly News, he is executive director of TheSurvivorClub.org, a new online resource center and support network for people facing all kinds of adversity.

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