A Pilot’s Comparison of Safety in Planes Versus Cars

I’ve just had a great conversation, this evening, with a pilot who was at the next table to mine at dinner.

Our initial topic came from him and was about the safety comparison between air travel and driving, so I asked whether he was aware that for every person killed in commercial flights worldwide, each year, over 2,160 people are killed in road crashes.  Yes, a ratio of more than 2,000-to-1,  and even the number of people killed annually just on America’s roads is over 60-times greater than the total number of plane-crash fatalities worldwide.

Various Boeing jets in BBJ livery. (Wikimedia Commons.)

“Most people have no idea how much safer it is to fly rather than drive,” he said.  “Sometimes, when I’m driving home after a flight, I see a car coming the other way and we are both doing 55mph, and he passes really close to me.”

“Yes, that’s a closing speed of more than 160 feet-per-second,” I said, in full agreement with him.  ” But I hope you wont be offended if I tell you that many pilots I’ve spoken to — both civil and military — admit that even they don’t concentrate enough when they are driving, compared to when they are flying.”

“Yes, I think that will be true,” said the pilot.

We talked about the levels of complacency in relation to the huge number of people killed in road crashes, each year, but how very little gets mentioned in the media, compared to other, much less lethal but more attention-getting incidents.

Then we moved onto the subject of drunk driving.  “Do you have a fixed, minimum time-period between consuming alcohol and going on duty to fly?” I asked.

“We call it the ‘bottle-to-throttle’ time,” he said, “and it is now ten hours.  And our limit is just 0.02 percent BAC.”  [This is one-quarter of the limit in relation to drunk-driving, so the rules for pilots are much more stringent than those for drivers.]

“What about distraction?” I asked.  “I believe that in the USA’s most recent commercial jet crash — the Coglan Air flight that crashed on final approach at Buffalo, over ten years ago — there was mention in the official report that the pilot and co-pilot had been talking about irrelevant topics at an inappropriate time.”

“Yes, there are times during flights when the flight crew must not talk about anything except the actual flight details,” he said.

“So that is to prevent your version of distracted driving?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the friendly pilot.  “And there was a lot of other knowledge came out of the Buffalo crash which has now been put into practice in all airlines.”  [End of reported conversation.]

One of very few places in the developed world where cars and commercial jets potentially could meet: the road onto the Gibraltar peninsula crosses the main runway at Gibraltar Airport. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Please note that I do not pretend that the above discussion is verbatim.  It is just a paraphrased summary of a longer conversation.  However, it did cover some important points.

Many authorities say that road crashes and plane crashes should not be compared but it can also be argued that some points — not least the huge difference in the numbers and rates of deaths, mentioned above — should not be exempted from comparisons.

A key fact is that once a plane has complied with traffic controllers’ instructions regarding altitude and heading, what is it possibly going to hit?  The answer is absolutely nothing!

Compare this to all of the “potential conflicts” that drivers (or any other road-users) have to negotiate on any busy street.

Drivers encounter vastly, vastly more potential collision scenarios than do pilots.  But on the other hand, pilots are dramatically better trained — not for them an inadequate state drivers’ manual and a ten-minute driving test! — and they are much more rigorously monitored, and presumably disciplined.

Am I saying that drivers should receive dramatically more training?  There are actually two contradictory parts to the answer:

  1. The standards and duration of basic driver training in the USA fall a long way short of best practices in other nations which have significantly better safety records; but
  2. Mass driver training — especially without coaching for improved attitude — is remarkably ineffective as a means of reducing crashes and deaths, so while America’s training regime certainly could be improved a lot, to good effect,  there is still only so far one can go down that route.  However, drivers who individually can be inspired to have more interest in safe driving or who already have a good attitude in that respect, can be trained to be considerably safer.

So the moral of this article is what?  Simply this:  We all need to get our head around the fact that driving is almost inevitably the most dangerous thing we do on a day-to-day basis.  Ignoring this fact can all-to-easily get you killed or — just as bad — make you a killer.  Those who consciously or sub-consciously believe that “it will never happen to me” are actually making it more likely that it will be them!

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Related post:

The Big List — U.S. Road Crash Fatality Comparisons that will Stun You!

4 Replies to “A Pilot’s Comparison of Safety in Planes Versus Cars”

  1. Fascinating report Eddie. Also a reassuring and rare insight into pilot practices – I’m amazed at the conversation restriction, but it is so clearly logical, to keep all flight crew focussed on their critical tasks.

    No commercial radio or music streaming, no mobile phones, games or magazines, no lively chatter between pilot and crew, just pure professionalism, from start to safe landing. That’s why they pay them all the money I suppose and that’s why air crashes are so infrequent.

    Now how many good ideas should really be taken up by the driving/road safety authorities??

    1. Yes, indeed. That is a major part of the argument we are making. Planes have very few ‘potential conflicts’ while in the air, whereas anyone in charge of a vehicle — motorised or otherwise — can encounter hundreds of potential collisions on any journey.

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