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Aviation & Transportation Safety, Part 1 of 3

I am currently working on adding a rotorcraft-land, category and class rating to my pilot's license (that's helicopters for non-pilots).  One of the first things people say when I tell them this is, it's your funeral or some such nonsense.  Depending upon my company (and my mood, if I'm being totally honest), I might choose to politely let the ignorant comment slide by.  Or, I might jab back with a statistic about how many people have died so far this year in automobiles, just in Colorado where we live (the number as of the end of May, 2018 is 206), to watch them squirm a little.  This usually elicits some sort of "ya, but..." response about what a wonderful driver they are, but who really cares because their driving ability is, at most, half the equation when it comes to highway safety.

This post is the first of three in which I will provide some analysis of the facts regarding transportation safety in general and highways versus skyways in particular.  In upcoming parts 2 and 3,  I will provide more specificity and analysis with respect to general aviation, and finally helicopter safety.  Several caveats: 1) except for a few rare inclusions in the NTSB data set, this data is US only 2) civilian aviation, no military accident data included 3) and I hope this obvious - I'm looking only at manned aircraft systems.

Overview

First, a very broad look at Transportation Fatalities in the United States in 2016, courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board...

 For every person that dies due to an aviation accident in the United States, approximately 91 people are killed by an automobile.

For every person that dies due to an aviation accident in the United States, approximately 91 people are killed by an automobile.

A few highlights:

  • Of the last 20 years there were 11 in which there were zero airline passenger fatalities.
  • Of the last 10 years there were 8 in which there were zero airline passenger fatalities.
  • You are 14.5x more likely to be killed by an automobile while walking near cars than you are to be killed by any aircraft.
  • In the US, someone dies about every 13 minutes in an automobile accident.
  • In 2016, more than twice the number of people were killed on a road bicycle than in an aircraft.
  • I have yet to travel by pipeline (but it's coming).

But more people drive than fly, right?

Yes, does that really matter though?  Many people drive themselves and are driven by others, however, few people fly themselves - most who fly are flown by someone else (often a professional pilot).  According to data compiled by Statista, there are approximately 220 million licensed drivers in the United States (pretty much everyone of age has a driver's license).  In a 2014 article, the Los Angeles Times estimated there were 253 million cars and trucks in the United States.  I do not know a reliable way to estimate how many of these cars/drivers actually drive every day, but let's say it's at least 60%, just to pick some sort of baseline.  That would mean there are at least 132 million drivers per day on US roads in one way or another. 

 There are more that 220 million licensed drivers in the United States, from less that 500,000 in Wyoming, to more than 26 million in California.  Above are states with more than 5 million licensed drivers.

There are more that 220 million licensed drivers in the United States, from less that 500,000 in Wyoming, to more than 26 million in California.  Above are states with more than 5 million licensed drivers.

According to the FAA, there are 609,306 total licensed pilots (about 0.28% of drivers), and 2,587,000 passengers fly in and out of US airports every day, on average (about 2% of my estimated driving number).  Scientific American published an article that estimates US drivers accumulate about 3.15 trillion miles behind the wheel each year.  Compare this to the total capacity in 2016 of airline seat-miles of 1.67 trillion, and the numbers get a little closer, especially when you take into account that the 1.67 trillion available seat-miles in 2016 does not include general aviation (2016: there are 6,871 commercial aircraft in the United States which operate at relatively high utilization rates, and there are 210,000 General Aviation aircraft, 164,200 fixed-wing / 10,500 rotorcraft / 35,300 light-experimental, which operate at relatively low utilization rates).

When I look at the data, it is clear that every day more Americans are on the wheel more than they are on the wing, but when it comes to how we transit the distance between two points (person-miles), the sky and the highway might be closer than I would have guessed.

Accident Data

First, aircraft...

The vast majority of people who fly in the US do so on a schedule commercial airliner (14 CFR part 121), so I am providing these statistics for comparison.  I am also lumping together the rate of serious injury and the fatality rate in order to achieve a number that is (at least somewhat more) comparable to the motor vehicle number.  Going back about 20 years, the absolute odds of death or serious injury each time you board an airliner is 6.22% per million (6.22 x 10^-8), or about 1 in 16,070,053.

 Chart: Tyr Jet, LLC.  Underlying data: US Federal Aviation Administration

Chart: Tyr Jet, LLC.  Underlying data: US Federal Aviation Administration

Now, the automobile numbers...

In the US, there are about 17 fatalities per year for every 100,000 license drivers.

Fatality Rate per 100k Licensed Drivers, US 1990-2016 Statista.png

The motor vehicle injury rate is significantly higher (about 66x) than the fatality rate.

Injury Rate per 100k Licensed Drivers, US 1990-2015 Statista.png

According to the National Safety Council, approximately 40,100 people lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents in the US during 2017, with 4.57 million people injured seriously enough to require hospitalization.  That makes the automobile fatality rate 1.823 x 10^-4, or about 1 in 5,486, and the injury rate 2.077%, or about 1 in 48 people in the US will be hospitalized due to an automobile accident in any given year.

Wrapping up

So, at the risk of grossly oversimplifying what goes into some of these numbers and comparing apples to oranges, the basic comparison for risk of death/serious injury is cars: 1 chance in 48 (people per year), airline: 1 chance in 16,000,000 (passenger enplanements) - in other words there is no comparison.  The only reason we compare these two vastly different things is because we have to be able to compare flying to something, and most people will drive if they decide not to or can't fly for some reason.  On average, more people die each year from injuries caused by lightning strikes (about 50) that are injured on an airline flight.

More to follow on GA and Helicopters...fly safe! Or maybe I should say be safe and fly!


References / Showing my Work:

Air Traffic by the Numbers - US Federal Aviation Administration

2017 Civil Airmen Statistics - US Federal Aviation Administration

2015-2016 US Transportation Fatalities Summary - National Transportation Safety Board

2016 Preliminary Aviation Safety Statistics - US Federal Aviation Administration.  This file includes many of my own calculations and charts.

Statista - www.statista.com

The National Safety Council - www.nsc.org

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Lightning Tri-Fold