It was a terrible stretch for aviation.

In an eight-day span last month, three commercial plane crashes killed 462 people. By now the flight numbers and grim circumstances are familiar: Malaysia Airlines flight 17, downed by a missile over the Ukraine. TransAsia 222, crashed on approach to an island off Taiwan. One day later, Air Algerie 5017, lost during a dust storm in Mali.

In an eight-day span last month, three commercial plane crashes killed 462 people.

But it was a worse stretch for automobiles, and not that many noticed.

Over the same eight-day period that claimed hundreds in those high-profile air disasters, an estimated 735 people perished in traffic accidents in the United States alone. Across the globe, cars killed an estimated 28,493 over the same eight days and injured thousands more.

The air crashes brought the usual fear-of-flying tropes from the news media. Aside from the à-la-carte headlines in local news outlets, the traffic deaths generated their usual silence. Maybe it's time we pay more attention.

"Unless you're a skydiver or someone who feeds sharks, getting in a car is the single most dangerous thing you do," said Bruce Schneier, a security expert, policy analyst and essayist. "The same number of people who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks die every month in car crashes, but it's just so normalized, we don't talk about it or think about it. But it's crazy how dangerous it is."
How dangerous? In the US, there were 33,561 traffic fatalities in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, approximately 11.3 deaths per one billion vehicle miles traveled, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. By comparison, only three people died in commercial aircrafts on American soil over the past three years. Air travelers die at a rate of 0.07 per billion passenger miles flown, according to a study from Northwestern University.

Air travel is far safer than driving in a car, but our perception of the comparative risks between driving and flying is skewed.

'A High-Dread Rating'

Human beings don't merely evaluate risk based on calculated odds, says David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It: What Our Fears Don't Always Match The Facts. Instead, we filter risk through inherently subjective perspectives that are always running in our subconscious. So when it comes time to process the possibility of dying in a transportation-related accident, the mind sees a plane crash as a more lousy option.

"It's not the nature of dying, it's the nature of how you get dead," Ropeik said. "A plane crash is a particularly terrifying thing to imagine, dying that way. It has what we call a 'high-dread rating.' Basically, the more pain and suffering in the way you die, the more afraid of it you're going to be."

Catastrophic accidents that kill scores at once time tend to cause more dread than than accidents that are spread out over space and time. Sure, cars kill 1.3 million people worldwide every year, and the World Health Organization has called the traffic deaths a "global epidemic" on par with malaria and tuberculosis. But none of those are as emotionally dramatic as a plane crash.



The Risk-Perception Gap

These and other factors contribute to what Ropeik calls the "risk-perception gap." Early in our evolution, humans were pretty good at processing risks and surviving. Today, the risks are more complicated, and we worry more when we should be less concerned, and worry less when we should be more concerned. "Increasingly, risks call for more information and careful thought," he said. "But that's not the system we have."

This fundamental misinterpretation of risk can lead to unforeseen, tragic consequences.

This fundamental misinterpretation of risk can lead to unforeseen, tragic consequences. In the months following Sept. 11, for example, fears of flying surged. So many people eschewed the airlines in favor of driving that more died in car accidents. Researchers have documented a spike in traffic deaths they attribute directly to this phenomenon.

In a report titled, Driving Fatalities After 9/11: The Hidden Cost Of Terrorism, researchers at Cornell University, after controlling for other factors, found the travelers' response to the attacks resulted in an additional 344 driving deaths per month in late 2001. While the effect of the attacks on transportation choices weakened over time, they attributed a total of 2,170 driving deaths to the attacks – a death toll that's about 70 percent of the approximate 3,000 Americans directly killed in the attacks themselves.

A similar study from the University of Michigan identified the same increase in traffic deaths, concluding there were nine percent more deaths than expected in the latter portion of 2001.

Individual choices are deadly enough; when our collective risk assessments are collected and used in larger-scale decision making, the consequences are magnified.



Politicians Treat Plane And Car Risks Differently

Our political response to risks and dangers in transportation are equally out of proportion. Consider this: The last major commercial plane crash in the US occurred more than five years ago. On February 12, 2009, Colgan Air flight 3407 experienced an aerodynamic stall in icing conditions near Buffalo, NY. Forty-nine people died.

The response from Washington was swift. The Federal Aviation Administration raised the flight time required to earn an airline transport pilot's license to 1,500 hours. In 2011, it imposed stricter duty and rest times on flight crews to combat pilot fatigue, which was cited as a factor in the accident.

Cars kill an average of 91.9 people every day in the United States, and they're responsible for 94.4 percent of all transportation fatalities in America.

If the 49 deaths in the Colgan Air crash merited attention from Washington, surely the 132,999 traffic deaths that have occurred in the intervening years have earned a proportional response? Not exactly.

When the National Transportation Safety Board proposed last year that the threshold for drunk driving, responsible for 25 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2012, be lowered to .05 blood-alcohol content, it was met with resistance.

Fatal trucking crashes have increased 18 percent on American roads since 2009, the same year as the Colgan crash. Yet the week after comedian Tracy Morgan's crash put the spotlight on tired truck drivers, Congress began debating a proposal that would allow truckers to drive 82 hours per week, a relaxation of current rules that cap drivers at 70 hours per week.

By its own estimates, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said roughly 200 Americans are killed every year – slightly less than half are children – when they are backed over. Even though Congress enacted a law that mandated better rear visibility way back in 2007 for almost all passenger vehicles, NHTSA didn't actually finalize the rules until earlier this year. They don't go into effect until 2018. In the lag, an estimated 2,200 more people will have been killed with little attention paid.

It'd be easy to blame the politicians who lack the will to protect Americans from automotive risks for these failings. But remember, they take their cues from the same Americans who, in a recent Harris Poll, acknowledged both drunk driving and texting-while-driving are dangerous – yet admitted to doing them anyway.



Here's Where It Gets Tricky

Cars kill an average of 91.9 people every day in the United States, and they're responsible for 94.4 percent of all transportation fatalities in America. By any measure, yes, driving is more dangerous than flying. But it can be easy to oversimplify that calculation. Hundreds of variables affect the assessment of risk.

A passenger flying from Cleveland to Houston has less risk than a passenger flying over a war zone. A passenger stopping to connect at a hub has a higher risk than a passenger who takes one transcontinental flight because accidents occur more often during takeoffs and landings. A person traveling in a private plane has a higher risk of dying than a person on a commercial flight.

"The numbers part of risk is a slippery business. You really have to be thoughtful as you think through your risks and subpopulation denominator." – David Ropeik

Risk in a car is equally complex. Urban roads are significantly safer than rural roads. Men die in traffic accidents at higher rates than women. Carrying passengers increases your chances of an accident. So does driving at night. If there is an accident, driving a smaller car increases the likelihood of injury or death. So does driving a car equipped with rudimentary safety technology.

And then there's time. All modes of transportation are safer today than they were a decade ago. Evaluating risk through the narrow snapshot of today might generate a different conclusion than one that considers historical risks involved with flying and driving.

"The numbers part of risk is a slippery business," Ropeik said. "You really have to be thoughtful as you think through your risks and your subpopulation denominator. In the end, even when you have that probability, you'll run those facts through a back filter to see how bad it might feel."

In the end, those emotions will win out. Fear of flying will continue to scare a certain segment of the population, when we'd all be a little better off at least pondering the more mundane, inherently riskier act of getting behind the wheel.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 29 Comments
      Matt44
      • 4 Months Ago

      I think to make a fair comparison, there needs to be an accounting for the number of people driving a day vs flying.

      Bernard
      • 4 Months Ago

      When I choose to fly or drive, it's usually dependent on travel costs. Not the risks of death. I'm not a troglodyte from the 1970's, flying doesn't scare me. I put headphones on and fall asleep. The only thing I fear about flying is losing my luggage or getting molested by TSA.

      tjon901
      • 4 Months Ago
      When 462 people die its a tragedy. When 28493 people die its a statistic.
      JSH
      • 4 Months Ago

      I've had the same conversation with a guy I know that carries a gun with him everywhere but doesn't wear his seat belt while driving or a helmet when riding his motorcycle.  

      People's perception of risk has little to do with actual risk.  

      Len Simpson
      • 4 Months Ago

      re; driving---universally poor  training is most accountable

      re: flying-----3 abreast seating is a criminal act of design.

      Avinash Machado
      • 4 Months Ago

      At least the chances of surviving in a car accident are much higher than surviving a plane crash.

      ctsmith1066
      • 4 Months Ago

      I'll admit to having a fair amount of cognitive dissonance when it comes to air-travel. I know (and have always known) that flying is statistically the safest way to travel. I mean, I suppose I could just walk everywhere, but I think if I tried to hike across the country I'd have a heart attack. 

      But I have a great deal of apprehension about flying. I wouldn't call it a fear, exactly. I just know that if the plane were to crash mid-flight, I would almost certainly die. Or if something were to happen over the ocean, even if the plane were able to set down in the ocean without killing me, I'd still be stranded. The odds of anything happening are extremely remote, like winning-the-lottery remote. But then, someone does win the lottery, and there are some people who by pure random chance happen to be passengers on a plane that crashes. Those people all have lives and families and hopes and dreams and yada yada yada. None of them get on the plane expecting to die, but they do. I will almost certainly not be one of those people, even if I go on a thousand flights; but if I am, there's nothing I can do about it.

      For me, at least, I think it comes down to control. Driving is insanely dangerous, but at least I can tell myself I am in control of my own driving. Of course, I could get in a crash caused by others' negligence, but if I drive defensively I can avoid most dangerous situations (that's what I tell myself, at least).

        pavsterrocks
        • 4 Months Ago
        @ctsmith1066

        Apparently you have yet to experience a heavy metal object flying out of a bed of a pick up truck driving in front of you or a car flipping in your lane for no apparent reason.  Driving is just a dice game; consider yourself lucky.  So far.

          RocketRed
          • 4 Months Ago
          @pavsterrocks

          Exactly.  When I'm driving on the NJ TNPK with my family, as I often have, and I see the remains of some terrible accident along the way, as I almost always do, I wonder to myself what the heck am I doing with the safety of my family.  If you went to the airport and every single time you saw a smoldering wreck on the tarmac in coming or going, you would not be so keen on flying.  Yes, It's about control, but it's really childish to just think, well the reason why that CUV got smooshed by that UPS truck was because the CUV driver was just not paying attention.  That's not how driving works.

        Peter Middleton
        • 4 Months Ago
        @ctsmith1066

        What if you're riding in someone elses car or are hit when you are walking? Fault doesnt matter for shyt when you're dead!!! Its not like you're gonna have time to think about it, you're gonna be dead. 

        I just dont want to die. So statistically I feel much safer in the plane. Most everyone flying is a paid professional instead of all the idiot psychos in the cars.

      Hernan
      • 4 Months Ago

      I think my problem with driving vs airplanes has always been the sensation of lacking control of the vehicle. I always feel more worried when I'm a passenger in a car. On an airplane that fear gets bigger because my brain tells me: "unlike a car, the plane can't just stop if there's a problem."

      BipDBo
      • 4 Months Ago

      "In the US, there were 33,561 traffic fatalities in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, approximately 11.3 deaths per one billion vehicle miles traveled, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. By comparison, only three people died in commercial aircrafts on American soil over the past three years."

      So flying has 3 deaths/billion miles and driving has 11.3 deaths/billion miles, so flying has 26.5% of the mortality.  Not so fast.  To be apples and apples, you would have to compare my flying to my driving on a long road trip.  Traveling many miles fast, on all highway likely has much lower mortality per mile than all average driving which includes city, where more accidents occur per mile.  Now to make this relevant to me, isolate the other factors to me.  My family owns vehicles built to US safety standards, but WHO has done this survey worldwide.  Driving in America is likely much safer as compared to much of the world due to safer cars, but flying has likely very similar risks worldwide.  Another factor is that we do not drink and drive.  We also don't ride motorcycles.  In short, when embarking on a road trip, we are not worldwide average drivers traveling world wide average miles, so our specific risk of driving is likely going to close the gap a bit to flying.

      user164
      • 4 Months Ago

      Right or wrong, I'd rather take my chances driving.  At least I have some semblance of control in my own car (admittedly, I do have to share the road with others over whom I can exert no control).  

      Plus, if something goes wrong on a plane, you're chances of survival are much worse... and I've known a few aviation mechanics in the past that I wouldn't trust changing the oil in my lawnmower (I'm sure... at least I tell myself, "I'm sure" :) - that they were better at fixing planes and that most of them out there are better as well).

        Bernard
        • 4 Months Ago
        @user164

        This is why people are afraid of self driving cars. It's not about rational thinking about the risks, it's about that false sense of security most of us get lulled into when our own hands are on the controls. None of the false security is saving the 92 people who die in car accidents everyday.

          Peter Middleton
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Bernard

          Man I cant wait to get all the idiots who have no interest in driving on the road. I'm gonna be rocking it in my mid 90's sports cars.

        RocketRed
        • 4 Months Ago
        @user164

        This idea that you have no chance of surviving a plane crash is an infamous myth about air safety, and it plays directly into the "control" psychology.  The survival rate in a crash with fatalities is between 25 and 35 percent in recent years.  In a "ditching," it's more than 50 percent.  By comparison, what do you think are your odds of surviving a car crash with fatalities...even the "controlled" crash of an experienced driving avoiding a bad collision?  

      Michael Scoffield
      • 4 Months Ago

      Just like the others before me said, it's all about being in control. I'm in control of my car not some random stranger pilot. I'm entrusting my life in my own hands and I know what my limits are and what I'm capable of. I also know how to protect myself from the stupidity of other drivers. I've driven countless miles and never been even close to crashing any of the cars that I've driven. Sure, it's not as safe statistically, but that doesn't mean much. In a car crash, a last minute reflex reaction can save your life. In a plane malfunction at 20.000 feet you're most certainly dead. Then there's stupid airlines like Malaysia Airlines who lose planes and fly over full blown war zones. It also depends on where you regularly drive. While does general statistics are interesting, they have no relevance to me. I live in a remote mountainous area with curvy roads and almost zero cars. It's not the same as driving on a highway in Pakistan. So, still, I'm not convinced. 

      Arthur Wilson
      • 3 Months Ago

      I think people often give less thought to car deaths as it tends to be one of the drivers faults. I guess it's more of a tragedy that fewer people die when there's no thing they could do about it. 

      In the US there are around 2 million flight passengers a day, compared to about 220 million drivers

      No one gets into a car and thinks "I could die today" though, but some may think that about flying. It's the lack of control - ironically and ultimately the same issue with most road deaths!  

    • Load More Comments