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2014: 258,704
2013: 330,818

By the Numbers, Flying is a lot Safer than Driving or Taking the Train

Wonderful shot of American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER

Wonderful shot of American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER

I hear from a lot of aviation enthusiasts, “why are people afraid of flying? It is the safest transportation out there.” I have heard all sorts of fascinating statistics on how much safer flying is than driving, but I wanted to check them out for myself and share what I found.

A lot of people feel they have a lack of control while flying. They are sitting in a seat 30,000 feet in the air and their life is in the hands of the pilot and luck. Many feel they have full control in their automobile and are able to avoid a deadly crash. Yes, there are many auto incidents that can be avoided, but in most fatal accidents, there is nothing the driver can do.

First, some raw information from government websites:

Data from NHTSA (2008):
Total Auto-Related: 34,017
Deaths to Drivers: 19,220
Deaths to Auto Passengers: 7,397
Pedestrian Deaths: 4,378

DATA FROM FRAOSA (2008):
Total Train Related Deaths: 800
Deaths on a train: 3

Ok you ready for this?

DATA FROM NTSB:
Deaths on 14 CFR 121 (Airlines)…

From 1982-Present: 2924
In 2009: 45
In 2008: 0
In 2007: 0
In 2006: 47
Deaths on 14 CFR 135 (Commuters)…
From 1982-Present:  364
In 2009: 0
In 2008: 0
In 2007: 0
In 2006:  1

The raw numbers are pretty interesting all on their own. I was hoping to compare 2008 stats with all transportation methods, but there just weren’t any airline-related fatalities in 2008. It is amazing that in 2008 34,017 Americans died in car related accidents, but in 28 years from 1982-2010 only 3,288 Americans have died from airline-related accidents. Just think about that… statistically, that means it would take over 117 years of airline fatalities to equal the same number of auto-related deaths just in 2008.

Although telling already, I also wanted to compare number of deaths per miles traveled by car versus airplane versus train. According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Americans in 2008 traveled 2,553,043,000,000 miles  in cars, 583,506,000,000 miles via commercial aviation and 16,850,000,000 miles by rail. Doing the math, I looked at the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled in the US:

TRAIN RELATED: 4.40
People being killed by a train in any fashion via FRAOSA

OTHER AUTO: 1.73
Motorcycles, pedestrians, auto related

AUTOS: 1.33
Only passenger vehicles

PASSENGER TRAIN: 0.13
People dying on the train via FRAOSA

COMMERCIAL AIRLINES: 0.0077
2009: 0.0077
2008: 0.0000
2007: 0.0000

Once again, it is hard to compare, since so many years for airlines have zero deaths. This means the average American is 190 times more likely to die in an auto accident in 2008 versus an automobile accident per 100 million miles traveled. So why do people concentrate so much on airline-related deaths versus others?

Well, the media and public really attach on to an airline crashing anywhere in the world. Heck, you normally will hear when an airline needs to make an emergency landing. However, you barely hear a peep about an auto-related death on the local news, let alone an auto death happening somewhere else in the nation or world. This slanted coverage gives passengers this false idea that airlines are inherently unsafe and people die all the time. Also, where an average of about 90 people die per day in a car related accident, they are spread through out the day and all over the country. It isn’t as shocking as 30-250 people dying at one time in an airline incident.

This just helps to reinforce how amazing air travel is in the US. What other transportation can you use in America today that is safer than that… other then not leaving your home? These are very complex machines, constantly flying as cheap as possible at all hours of the day. It truly is amazing more incidents don’t occur. Those that ask for the “good ‘ol days” of travel, should remember how much safer your flight is now than it was just 50 years ago.

On the other side of this, should airlines and airport continue to put millions of dollars into safety, when the industry is already very regulated and comparatively very safe? Is there such a thing as spending too much money to make air travel “too safe” or are the costs worth it?

Anyhow, getting off my soapbox, I know if you are afraid of flying, seeing these statistics probably isn’t going to help you feel too much at ease.  However, next time you hit a bit of turbulence, think of how few people die each year flying and that there is a really, really really, really, really good chance you will be a.o.k!

Image: Luis Argerich

22 comments to By the Numbers, Flying is a lot Safer than Driving or Taking the Train

  • KB

    Death by train (any fashion) is not necessarily a good metric, lots of people commit suicide by placing themselves in the path of a train.

    As far as cost, there is such a thing as diminishing returns. The TSA is past that point while ATC is not. The best way to improve air safety would be to divert resources (money) from the TSA to the FAA for ATC modernization.

  • Paulo M

    Amazing post. Unfortunately, the reality is that in any single large advanced country with a 40 million-plus population, more people die on roads in a year compared with commercial aviation globally. Road deaths for any one of these countries in a single year forms a significant percentage of historic commercial aviation totals worldwide.

  • Dan

    Well trained commercial pilots are allowed to fly people around.
    Any moron can get a driver’s license in the US.

    Driving could be similarly as safe (and faster) if more stringent requirements were placed on car-driving licenses. If you get caught flying a commercial aircraft under the influence, you’ll end up on national news. If you drive drunk, you’ll likely get a slap on the wrist. There’s a bizarre sense of entitlement in the US with regards to driving — even though someone’s poor driving could destroy a family.

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  • Frank V

    I’m not afraid of flying, I’m terrified of TSA.

  • It seems to be a matter of media reporting. When a plane crashes it is horrific, hundreds of people die, and it makes worldwide news. Car crashes are much more common, but don’t receive that type of media attention.

    I agree with Dan’s comment. If all drivers had the same qualifications as commercial airline pilots, there would be far fewer accidents.

  • Well people are afraid of flying because it must not be forgotten that you are travelling in a metal tube at a speed just under the sound barrier at 30,000ft + in jets. Cars and trains is obviously different. Even I am more nervous about travelling by plane even though I know the stats.

  • Mike M

    Using “passenger miles”, a comparison of alleged utility, is simply a divisive means to bolster air travel safety but holds no basis in reality. When you die do people mention how old you are or how far your traveled?

    I don’t know about the rest of you but my existence is limited by TIME not distance. I cannot take US Air or Amtrak to the corner store to buy groceries. Is my 600 mile plane trip to Chicago for a boring sales meeting 600 times more ‘important’ than my 1 mile trip to the store to get food?

    By this meaningless passenger mile standard of ‘utility’, flying to the moon in an Apollo spacecraft is only few times more dangerous than driving a car. Including the deaths of Apollo 1 (RIP) and it’s zero miles flown but not Apollo #13 or #2 through #10, counting only the 18 astronauts who reached a lunar parking orbit plus the three on Apollo One pretending that it would have been a moon mission – 760,000 miles RT X 6 trips = 4.56 million miles 4.56 X 18 ‘passengers’ = 82.1 million passenger miles, works out to 3.65 fatalities per 100 million miles.

    If you added up the actual orbit distances flown by all US space flights, (and include the shuttle deaths), it would be in the 100’s of billions of passenger miles and easily blow away all other modes of transportation. But you simply KNOW that being an astronaut has to be a lot more risky than what their fatality per passenger-mile statistics portend. (If it was that safe kindergarteners would be go on space shuttle ride field trips if they could afford it.)

    TIME is what gauges our lives. TIME should be the only statistic used for comparing risk of our various activities while we are in the act of pursuing them whether that is flying, scuba diving, driving, mountain climbing or sitting at home watching TV, (this is what I think of whenever I am at a hospital for any reason….)

    I’ve tried to find passenger hour data but haven’t been very successful save a few amateur estimates that conclude commercial air travel is slightly more dangerous, (very slightly so), than driving a car based on passenger hours.

    Flame away!

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  • What About This

    One thing that I’ve always wondered is, if number number of people flying was equal to the number of people driving (let’s just say in the US), which would be more safe? It also appears that the further/longer you are driving/riding in a car, the more likely you could crash. Is the same true for flying??

  • NageshwarRao

    Dear all,
    The parameters used for statistics are wrong to prove that flying is safer than other modes.we should compare with the percentage of survivability incase of any accident should be the criteria to decide the safety.It is obvious that if accident happens the percentage of survivability is 0 if you compare with the other form of transportation. Herez the way of calculation,Nof ppl travelling in a accident of any mode to the noof ppl survived should be the parameter to decide which is the safet

  • Joe

    Well, I am not a fan of flying (although I do) and here is one good reason why. While driving my car on the highway, I could have a total power failure. If I do, does my car plow into a brick wall? No, I simply pull over to the side of the road. I find that scenario much less stressful than plummeting to the ground with no chance of surviving. So, for me it is about control over my situation. If they gave me a little portable oxygen mask and a parachute under my seat with a quick way out I would feel much less anxiety while flying, even if my chances were slim to none. Also, I would bet if a catastrophic failure happened during a flight and everyone was equipped to fend for themselves there would be plenty of survivors. Better than none, don’t you think?

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