Answering the Question: Is Driving to the Airport More Dangerous than Flying?

Photo: Luis Argerich

A person with an irrational fear of flying is frequently told “you’re more likely to die driving to the airport than on the flight” – is this actually true or just calming words?

Let’s look at some statistics
From the perspective of a passenger in the car/airplane:

  • Driving = 1 fatality per 88 million miles driven (excluding motorcycles which have a 25 times higher death rate and any pedestrians/bikers killed by cars)
  • Scheduled flights (mainly airlines) = 1 fatality per 64 million miles flown

(These numbers would skew in favor of airplanes if you cared about how many people were transported. But, knowing my readers as well as I do, you only care about yourself.)

It looks like the expected value of death favors driving, but I would argue that you should be trying to avoid fatal accidents all together – if you are in one, it is a crap shoot whether or not you are the one that dies. This is definitely not a situation I want to be in, otherwise I would play Russian Roulette.

  • Driving = 1 fatal accident every 76 million miles driven
  • Scheduled flights = 1 fatal accident every 2 billion miles flown

What are the odds of surviving this so called Russian Roulette?
Each fatal plane crash averages over 30 deaths, which is only 42% of the passengers on the flights. On the other hand each fatal driving accident averages 1.15 driver/passenger deaths. Unfortunately it is harder to track the number of occupants or even cars involved in these collisions. My approximation is 3 people involved – most cars have only the driver aboard, and the ones that do not are offset by solo car crashes. If the number is 2.75, this would equal the 42% survival rate for being in a fatal plan crash. Pretty darn close!

This is contrary to popular belief – the perception is that a fatal plane crash will have a much lower survivability rate than a fatal car accident. From a National Transportation Safety Board study:

“Because a public perception is that aviation accidents are not survivable, the Safety Board also examined the proportion of occupants who survived in each accident for the period 1983 through 2000. Contrary to public perception, the most likely outcome of an accident is that most people survive. In 528 of the 568 accidents (93.0 percent), more than 80 percent of the occupants survived (figure 3). Accidents that result in complete or near complete loss of life, such as TWA flight 800, account for a small percentage of all accidents. Only 34 of the 568 accidents (5.9 percent) resulted in fewer than 20 percent of the occupants surviving.”

Fine, but what about all the car accidents that are not fatal?
When you consider all the scheduled flights that crash, only 4.3% of the passengers die! Car accidents? If we assume each car accident involves an average of 3 people, 0.17% of the passengers die. So obviously plane crashes are more dangerous when considering life vs. death, but not by as much as you may expect. Injuries are a horse of a different color – I don’t need any statistics to show that you are much more likely to get injured driving than flying.

What’s the bottom line?
Per mile, you are slightly more likely to die from flying than driving. The average flight in 2000 was 616 miles long – so unless you are driving 850 miles to the airport, you are more likely to die on the flight!


*I like how they indicate plane crashes as survivable or not. Apparently this isn’t determined by looking to see if anyone is alive – a 1987 flight that crashed in Romulus, Michigan had 1 survivor yet was classified “not survivable”.

2 thoughts on “Answering the Question: Is Driving to the Airport More Dangerous than Flying?

  1. VEEDUM says:

    Your conclusions are flawed.

    “Per mile, you are slightly more likely to die from flying than driving.”

    There is no way that flying is more dangerous than driving on a per-mile basis.

    From wikipedia, under “Air Safety”, it says that per billion kilometres travelled, there is on average 0.05 deaths. In a car, there is on average 3.1 deaths. For simplicity, if we assume that every plane crash results in 100% deaths, and there is only 1 person on every flight (both things are way-off the mark), there would -still- be 62 times more deaths travelling by car than by flying, on a per-mile basis!

    Now consider, that source makes no differentiation between general aviation and commercial aviation.

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