Flying vs. Driving: It's Complicated

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 16, 2012

I’m just like everybody else: I grip the seat, at least a little bit, every time I fly, but never worry at all when driving a car. There’s something about that pavement beneath my wheels. Don’t planes look vulnerable when you see them flying by, all alone up there? In reality, according to Psychology Today, fatalities from flying are very rare—they amount to one per billion passenger trips. So that’s pretty good odds. Plane crashes always make the news, and car crashes often don’t.

A 2009 Turkish Airlines' crash in the Netherlands. These big crashes make the news. (Flickr/Radio Nederland photo)
A 2009 Turkish Airlines' crash in the Netherlands. These big crashes make the news. (Flickr/Radio Nederland photo)

Flying kills an average of 200 people a year in the U.S., says the Department of Energy; driving, meanwhile, killed 32,310 people last year. Each year, one in 6,800 Americans dies in a car accident, compared to one in 1.6 million airline passengers. You actually have a 1,000 times greater chance of being killed in a car accident than you do of winning a state lottery.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute studied the issue back in 1990, taking into account the fact that flying safety goes down with every stopover. They concluded, “Our calculations indicate that for average or high-risk drivers, it is always safer to fly than to drive. Furthermore, even for a low-risk driver, nonstop flying is safer than driving on rural interstates for a trip distance of more than 310 miles.” The relative risk? Driving the same route as your flight was seen as 65 times riskier.

Of course, that was then. Michael Sivak, one of the original Michigan survey authors, told me this week, “It would be interesting to redo that analysis. However, it might be the case that flying fatalities also dropped. Thus, it is not a priori clear whether the main finding would be different now.”
For many years, the number of fatalities held steady at around 40,000. But the 2011 figures are down 1.7 percent from 2010. The fatality rate for 2011 was 1.09 per 100 million vehicles traveled, the lowest on record (and the stats go back to 1949). In fact, the highway death toll has been going down every year since 2005 (when 42,708 died).

Despite all these statistics, people are still going to believe they're more at-risk in planes, even if they're riding with a driver exhibiting all the signs of risky behavior. So for those paranoid many, here's a video on how to survive a plane crash. Really:

I see a variety of reasons for our relative relief from carnage on the roads. I don’t think that drivers are getting better; in fact, they may be getting worse. The most important factor, for me, is safer cars, the result of effective seatbelts, multiple airbags and other passive devices, plus crumple zones and super-strong passenger cages. Electronic stability control, lane departure and forward collision warnings also play a role. Don’t thank the automakers for this—as Ralph Nader could tell you, they had to be legislated into it, and icons like Lee Iacocca resisted those efforts mightily. (He told Richard Nixon during his term as Ford’s president, “Safety has really killed all our business.”) Another big factor is a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled as a result of the recession and high gas prices. It was down 1.2 percent nationally between 2010 and 2011, hitting the lowest level since 2003

I would suggest, in fact, that the fatality rate would actually be much lower if we were driving safer. And the drop in deaths may be temporary. Sivak told me,  “There is some preliminary indication that the road fatalities for the first few month of 2012 are going up again.”

A car crash near Stourbridge, England in 2005. Impacts like this are increasingly survivable, but there's no accounting for distracted driving. (Flickr/Ian Hampton)
A car crash near Stourbridge, England in 2005. Impacts like this are increasingly survivable, but there's no accounting for distracted driving. (Flickr/Ian Hampton)

I’m concerned about distracted driving, especially in the young people now taking the wheel. As my Car Talk colleagues David Strayer and Paul Atchley recently wrote, “The attitude of younger drivers today regarding distracted driving is very much like the attitudes toward drunk driving in the 70s. Namely, ‘It’s bad but let’s not punish folks for doing it, because I am doing it.’” Today, we have a strong social norm against drunk driving, but an evolving prohibition against texting or cell phone calling. Strayer recently relayed a teenage girl’s last Facebook post before a fatal crash near Mountain Home, Idaho: “I can’t discuss this matter now,” she wrote. “Driving and Facebooking is not safe…”

Teenage driving safety goes down the more they carry distraction-inducting peers, according to a 2012 AAA Foundation study. Adding one such passenger increases the risk of a 16- or 17-year-old driver’s chance of getting into a fatal accident by 44 percent, the study said. And having three or more peer passengers quadruples the fatality risk. Add a passenger 35 or older, however, and the risk goes down 62 percent from a baseline. That’s a good reason for the many state laws that restrict young drivers from driving with just their friends.

The VMT data and distracted driving are both huge, but hard to measure accurately. Professor Atchley, who teaches at the University of Kansas, told me, "I think road fatalities' changes recently are more a function of economic data (fewer or more miles driven) than most things. But, yes, I do believe distracted driving will push our numbers up. The trick will be to actually get phone records in crashes to establish cause." That runs into privacy concerns, of course.

There’s some good news. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that the rate of all accident-related injuries in young people aged one to 19 years has gone down 30 percent in the last decade. And the biggest reason appears to be inherently safer cars, CDC said, as well as greater use of seat belts and booster seats, and the tougher driving rules outlined above.

You bet this is a complicated subject. It’s great that cars are getting safer, but we threaten to undo all that good work if distracted drivers are ignoring the basic rules of the road. And I’m getting more assured about flying, but then I start thinking about my carbon footprint as a result of all those miles in the air. My carbon footprint keeps me up nights.

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