Last month it seemed that airplanes were falling out of the sky almost daily. In just eight short days, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a missile over Ukraine, a TranAsia plane crashed just before landing and an Air Algerie plane was lost in a dust storm. Combined, a total of 462 live were lost. As news of the tragedies crowded the headlines and occupied the airways, it was enough to make nervous fliers reach for their airsickness bags.
But, before you cancel your plane tickets and strap in for a road trip, consider this. During the same eight days, in the US alone, 735 lives were lost in auto accidents. Globally, that number topped 28,000. Let’s take a look at the math. In 2012, there were a total of 33,561 traffic related deaths in the US, which comes out to 11.3 deaths for every one billion miles driven. In the same year, there were a mere 3 deaths in commercial airline accidents in the US, or 0.07 for every billion passenger miles flown. According to the numbers, driving is clearly the riskier activity. Yet, car crashes rarely show up in the headlines and almost no one is scared of hopping behind the wheel.
The Power of Emotion
While the numbers tell a powerful story, people don’t evaluate risk through logic and facts. Instead, evaluating risks often has more to do with emotion. It’s not always the numerical odds, but the amount of pain and terror associated with it, that makes an activity seem risky. A large-scale tragedy, with the possibility of killing hundreds of people at once, seems scarier than a small auto pileup affecting only a handful of people. Plus, a plane crash seems particularly horrifying as it brings up images of falling from a high altitude, water landings and runways filled with fire engines and ambulances.
Rate of occurrence also plays a role. Plane crashes are extremely rare, so they make a big emotional impact when they occur. However, traffic accidents happen everyday, so people become desensitized to them and they become part of the normal.
Politics at Play
Just as the public’s idea of the risks associated with flying and driving are misaligned, so are the responses from politicians. One may assume that, with thousands of people dying each year in auto accidents, federal agencies would be scrambling to fix the problem. However, the aviation industry gets much more attention when it comes to regulations.
2009 brought the most recent commercial plane crash in the US. After a Colgan Air flight crashed due to icing, killing 49 people, politicians jumped to action. The FAA quickly increased the amount of flight time needed to gain a pilot’s license. Then, just two years later they took measures to combat pilot fatigue.
On the other hand, action geared towards curbing auto accidents seems to crawl. Alcohol was determined to play a role in 25% of deaths due to traffic accidents in 2012, however efforts to lower the threshold for drunk driving were highly contested. Likewise, measures to improve rear visibility, which is a factor in many fatal accidents involving children, don’t go into affect until 2018, despite being mandated in 2007 and finalized earlier this year.
Another roadway concern, trucking accidents, have been on the rise since 2009. Yet, it took a highly publicized crash involved popular comedian Tracy Morgan to bring attention to the issue. But, don’t expect that to drive changes in regulations. Despite public outcry following the crash, Congress is considering relaxing the current rules and allowing truckers to put in even more hours on the road.
In The End
As with all activities, emotions win out when it comes to assigning risk. Though the numbers say driving is more dangerous, flying will likely always seem riskier. And maybe that is for the best, since a fear of flying might just prevent a tropical vacation while a fear of driving could mean not making it to the grocery store.