# Are airplanes the safest mode of transportation?

Considering the number of people that use it compared to other transports (cars, trains, boats), do you have less chances to die in a plane?

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When I've looked into this in the past it was necessary to be precise about what you mean by "safest". Supporters of this claim like to examine "per mile" statistics, and detractors "per trip" stats, and even then you need to consider regional variation across the globe. – dmckee Aug 3 '11 at 22:07
You're right, all these variations are intersting. Maybe it would also be of interest to compare deaths and injuries together and separately for each mode. – Nikko Aug 4 '11 at 7:59

The question of airplane safety is a nice field to demonstrate the old quip that you shouldn't trust any statistic you haven't forged yourself.

It is crucial to define exactly what you mean by safe, and what you are comparing:

Are you interested in total deaths per year? Then the car is the most dangerous and, depending on the country you are looking at, trains are the least dangerous, with airplanes also quite safe:

http://www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier/booth/Risk/trasnsportpop.html

Your annual odds to die in a passenger airline accident is 1 in 4,406,209 in the US, whereas the annaul odds to die in a car accident are 1 in 6,478. This seems to indicate that a plane is almost a thousand times safer than a car.

But is that the question one should be asking? You could ask: What is the chance of death in a transport related accident per hour of travel, or per kilometer traveled.

I found this short statement in a review on the book "Freakonomics":

Levitt also debunks some of today's more relevant conventional wisdom: the notion of driving being a far more dangerous form of transportation than flying. While it's true that many more people die annually in car accidents than in plane crashes, it's often overlooked that the dramatic difference in number of deaths is largely due to the amount of time the average person spends in an automobile in comparison to the relatively small number of hours spent in flight. Levitt goes on to show the per hour death rate of driving to be about equal to that of flying. Have a nice trip.

So what is the conclusion we can draw? Well, you can convert the chance of death per hour into a chance of death per trip by multiplying with the duration of the trip. And even if both car and plane have the same hourly rate, a trip in a plane for the same destination is far shorter than a trip in the car. If the hourly death rates are the same, then a plane is safer on a per trip basis by how much faster it is than a car. While this still means that a plane is safer than a car per trip, the factor is far less than 1000. More on the order of ~10.

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The problem I see with these kinds of statistics, is they deal with averages. In case of car travel there is really high correlation between risk and risky behaviors. For example some 25% of fatal accidents are caused by 5% youngest drivers. – vartec Aug 4 '11 at 9:29
Do you have comparable statistics for bicycling? – Apreche Aug 4 '11 at 12:20
"What is the chance of death in a transport related accident per hour of travel, or per kilometer traveled." I would ask exaclty those two questions (per hour and per km). Would you happen to know the answer? – Suma Aug 4 '11 at 13:07
@Suma I tried some time googling but did not find exactly what I was looking for, especially not for cars. I'll try harder :) – Lagerbaer Aug 4 '11 at 14:44
... and: Since airports aren't the real targets, there has to be done some calculation, because not every kilometer flown was in the interest of the flying person. From start to stop, you normally have a distance start -> Airport A -> Airport B -> stop. This could be compared and counted as the distance start -> stop, as if it was done by car. – user unknown Aug 5 '11 at 8:53

The chance per trip stats are more complex than suggested in other answers suggest. The normal car accident stats are for average car trips, so are the air stats. Thus the normal car stats are for short average trips to and from work and air for long average trips between countries and over seas.

From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_safety#Statistics

It is necessary to mention that first two statistics ["Deaths per billion passenger-journeys and "Deaths per billion passenger-hours"] are computed for typical travels for respective forms of transport, so they cannot be used directly to compare risks related to different forms of transport in a particular travel "from A to B". For example: according to statistics, a typical flight from Los Angeles to New York will carry a larger risk factor than a typical car travel from home to office. But a car travel from Los Angeles to New York would not be typical. It would be as large as several dozens of typical car travels, and associated risk will be larger as well.

Flying from London to Beijing would be quite normal for a plane but highly unusual for a car.

Such a trip in a car would be fraught with dangers not normally shown in the average car stats such as tiredness, extreme wear and tear on the car, and even highly unusual things such as car hijackers, thieves, bandits and war zones. Travel by air avoids almost all of these hazards.

Conversely, the most dangerous times when flying are in the approach/landing (9%/38%) and taking off (14%). Short, car like, trips would increase the amount of landing and taking off per mile travelled away from the average stats for the plane. Flying to work and to the shops, instead of driving, would probably be relatively dangerous compared to driving. This probably being of of the key reasons that flying cars have never and will never become popular even if technically possible.

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This isn't an answer. It is a comment. Please make a comment and delete this. – Oddthinking Aug 5 '11 at 1:25
Added references as asked. This isn't a comment, it's an answer. Air planes are by far the safest for intercontinental travel by miles and miles. However, Air planes are not a safe way to travel to the shops for groceries. – Rincewind42 Aug 5 '11 at 2:00