It’s Safer than driving a Car – Not!

February 27, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

One of the oldest and most incorrect sayings in GA is that flying light aircraft is safer than driving. By every statistical measure we can come up with to make the comparison, flying is much riskier. Years ago, ASF attempted to match annual mileage of passenger cars to that of light aircraft. The best estimate was that automobiles had seven times as many accidents but as for fatalities, GA was seven times worse. At some point, we may attempt the comparison again but it’s not easy.

When the question comes up, I can usually baffle the audience with some physics that points out that there is often much less structure surrounding the occupants in aircraft, we are typically going three to eight times faster at impact and then there is that third dimension thing. How would automobile fatalties compare if you took a Yugo ( remember them? ), got it up to about 90 mph and drove it off a 2-3 story building? It’s rough but serves the point.

The final and perhaps most important aspect is of course – you. Fly prudently and probably, with no statistical validation possible, light GA flight can approach or exceed the safety record of cars. Don’t tell people flying light aircraft is safer than driving – it’s about on par with motorcycles. Just buckle up in both cases and make sure that if something goes wrong, it wasn’t something you did or didn’t do. The odds, both in the air and on the ground, improve tremendously!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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5 Responses to “It’s Safer than driving a Car – Not!”

  1. Leo Robinson Says:

    Hi Bruce!

    How are you keeping?

    I know that we don’t live in a perfect world so some form of accident is expected. I’m young and maybe I don’t understand.

    With a world flying population of ………. (soo many pilots) it’s expected too that a week would not go by without hearing about an air accident.

    I am aware that in the case of flying, weather has a huge effect. Although there are forecast etc, pilots can still be caught unprepared.

    I’m mumbbling all of this just to ask, why is it that despite a long history of road accidents and aircraft crashes; road safety awareness and flight training, many car and aircraft operators continue to exhibit a lack of precaution and good judgement?

    In the case of flying where more persons are at risk, I would expect for greater exercise of judgement. I am not arguing that there are not very high levels of training and experience coming out of that training but I have come across too many aircraft accidents where a serious lack of judgement was shown.

    Other than initial flight training, to what extent do you think pilots are made aware that “It can happen to you”? I really do think that organizations such as AOPA rightly stress on accident prevention among other things. There are also many free sources to learn how to conduct oneself in safe manner while flying but I think individuals need to be convinced that it can happen to them. The method to go about accomplishing this I would imagine being far more psychological than I can suggest.

    Thanks for reading.

    Leo Robinson.

  2. Bruce Says:

    Leo….

    Thanks for your note. There are no easy answers for either drivers or pilots or we would have come up with a solution by now. Humans are adaptable beings and we all have different levels of risk tolerance, perception of risk and skill.

    Learned behavior that we accumulate while growing up and perhaps some genetic influences ( nature & nurture are what makes each of us unique). All that psychological explanation is only the precursor to the concept of accident chains. If the circumstances don’t come together in just the right way, there is no accident.

    So due to luck, timing, fate whatever you’d like to call it, both pilots and drivers usually get away with it – at least for awhile. The smart ones may have a close call while learning or actually do learn from case studies and modify their behavior.

    As I’ve said for a long time, flying is as safe as you choose to make it.

    …….Bruce

  3. Philip Says:

    It may be statistically safer to drive – but to the best of my knowledge, while flying I have never encountered a drunk pilot, hit a pothole, been backed up in traffic for hours on end, received a speeding ticket, dealt with road construction, been knocked off my flight path by some idiot in a really fast airplane, been buzzed by a crotch rocket, paid a toll, been flipped off by a fellow pilot, missed an exit, gotten lost in a bad part of town…

    So yes, I’m sure statistically it is safer to drive. But when I land at the airport after a beautiful late afternoon flight, I am as relaxed as can be. Then I have to drive home – and I feel vulnerable and exposed once again. I would not fly if I thought it was dangerous. I consider it a privilege to fly. I also feel the highest obligation to my passengers and General Aviation in particular to be as safe as possible. I often wonder if every pilot – for just one week – really concentrated on being safe and exercised good judgment, how much we could reduce the accident rate. Just have everyone take that second look at the weather, perform a more thorough pre-flight, spend some extra time flight planning, or review emergency procedures and checklists. How much of a difference would it make and how many lives would it save?

    Numbers don’t lie – flying is riskier than driving. But I will take my chances in the air over the highway every time…

  4. Leo Robinson Says:

    Thanks.

    Well said Bruce.

    L.

  5. Colin T. Says:

    I am curious to know how the stats change if you only include GA fatalities that occurred in VMC; or only include those that were not caused by the pilot doing something colossally stupid. As a 70-hour private pilot, when I look at my own risks, it’s conceivable for me to die in a stall/spin accident, a mid-air collision, or in an off-airport landing after an engine failure, all of which could result from my own lack of skill. Obviously, I intend to avoid the common mistakes that lead to these incidents, but when these happen it’s very suddenly and without much recourse available to the pilot.

    On the other hand, I worry less about being killed by controlled flight into terrain (day or night), from an accident caused by VFR-into-IMC, or from accidents resulting from factors like an out-of-balance airplane, missed items on preflight inspection, or taking off in too-high density altitude. That’s because a pilot can plan to avoid these types of incidents – which I do very carefully before every flight. It’s also easy to see how pilots become cavalier about flying and end up in one of these situations.

    Therefore, if ASF does take the time to re-evaluate accident statistics vs. automobiles, it would be great to see some kind of categorization along these lines.

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