Debate regarding the relative safety of flying

Aviation Safety: Is flying safer than driving?

There has been an ongoing debate regarding the relative safety of flying as opposed to driving over long distances. Many argue that flying is the safer option, since statistics have proven this mode of transport to be one of the safest in the world. On the other hand, flying has been perceived as unsafe because passengers have relatively little chance of survival should mishaps occur in midair. One interesting dimension in terms of aviation safety is the events during September 11, 2001. These have caused many travelers to choose driving over flying as a result of terrorism fears. When comparing statistics, however, it appears that flying is indeed safer than driving because of factors such as the fatigue that drivers may suffer and human error on American roads. When flying, passengers do not need to maintain any level of concentration in order to remain safe during the journey.

The fear of flying, rather than a rational consideration of the relative safety of flying as opposed to driving, is generally based upon perceptions of safety. The decision to drive rather than fly can result from a variety of factors. According to Kersten (2011, p. 9), the 9/11 events caused a rise in what the author refers to as aviatophobia, or the fear of flying. This means that the decision to drive instead of fly was based not upon a rational consideration of likelihood or statistics, but rather upon a perception of relative safety in the light of past events. Blalock, Kadiyali and Simon (2005, p. 3) suggest that the decision to drive instead of fly, especially in the months immediately following the 9/11 events, were based upon two main reasons; the mentioned fear of a further attack, and secondly the increased inconvenience of airport security measures. The second reason is therefore not so much based upon safety considerations as the inconvenience of checking in at airports. In a more general sense, Kersten (2011, p. 9) also suggests that the particular nature of flying has given rise to a number of uniquely related fears and phobias, which could cause the perception of safety in terms of flying. These could include the fear of not being in control during the flight, the fear of turbulence, fear of crashing, fear of closed in spaces, and the fear of heights. These fears are all instrumental in creating a perception that flying is not as safe as driving. Indeed, when a vehicle accident occurs, the likelihood of survival is higher than when an aircraft crashes.

Sivak and Flannagan (n.d.) suggest that the factors that influence flying and driving safety must be taken into account if an accurate comparison of safety is to be made. The authors note, for example, that the risks involved in flying depends on the number of flight segments in the trip rather than the distance traveled. To quantify the risk involved, the authors calculated the probability of a particular passenger would be killed on a one-segment flight, which resulted in a value of more or less eight in a hundred million. Because driving risk is highly dependent upon the distance travelled, the authors calculated the probability of fatality per kilometer of driving. This, in turn, resulted in a value of about four in a billion per kilometer. When comparing these two values, the authors found that driving was approximately 65 times as risky as nonstop flying for the same distance. Statistically, therefore, flying appears to be safer than driving. The authors, however, concede that an extra element of risk was added after the 9/11 attacks. However, in retrospect, it appears that the risk of further terrorist attacks is very low compared to the number of flights and distance traveled, still making flights safer than driving.

Another statistical consideration is the number of deaths on United States roads during any given year as compared to fatalities from airline accidents. Even when the number of deaths from 9/11 is taken into account, road traffic accidents still resulted in much higher numbers — 42,119 fatalities in 2001, according to the authors. Thompson (2009) confirms the estimation that, statistically, driving is in fact far more dangerous than flying. In 2007, for example, only 44 people died as a result of aircraft crashes, as opposed to 44,000 in auto crashes. In order for terrorism to truly be a significant risk, as opposed to driving, it would therefore have to be much worse than at its current level. Even in the light of the 9/11 events, then, flying remains the safer mode of transport when taken into account from a statistical point-of-view.

From the perspective of later years, Thompson (2009) reports that there has been a downward trend in airline accidents. In addition, and even counter-intuitively, flight accidents have become “more survivable.” According to the author, the probability of being in a flight accident when boarding a craft in the United States is about one in 2 million, with a 60% probability of surviving such an accident should it occur. The author uses the Hudson landing as an example of this claim. Factors that influence the greater safety of current air travel include better flight crew training and better air traffic control. Many incidents that commonly occurred in the past have been eliminated in this way. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System, for example, has drastically reduced the probability of mid-air collisions.

In refuting the argument for airline safety, Jones (2003) responds to the Sivak and Flannagan article by pointing out that flight and driving safety could be viewed from more points-of-view than the distance traveled or the number of passengers taking the particular mode of transport. Jones considers, for example, the time spend in either mode of transportation. An hour of flying, for example, covers a much greater distance than an hour in a motor vehicle. Hence, while a comparable distance may be safer to travel by aircraft, the comparable time may not. Furthermore, statistics could be skewed by a number of factors, including the probability of crashes incurred by a lack of maintenance and other unforeseen factors. At its basis, the point is that statistics could be a very unreliable predictor of future flight safety as opposed to car safety.

When addressing this point, one must keep in mind that the statistics are very revealing indeed. Although they used vastly different methods, and addressed the issues at different times (2001 and 2009 respectively), the article by Sivak and Flannagan and the one by Thompson have in common that road accident fatalities are many times higher than flight fatalities. It is unlikely that the time traveled will affect these statistics on any significant level. Indeed, it appears that all fears relating to the safety of flying as opposed to traveling by motor vehicle are subjective and based upon perception rather than fact. The general reaction of travelers to 9/11 appears to substantiate this. One might therefore conclude that flying is indeed the safer mode of transport when considered from an academically viable viewpoint.

The statistics appear to be the main determinant of flight safety. Even when accounting for discrepancies in terms of time, number, predictability, and possibly skewed statistics, the much higher number of fatalities on American roads irrefutably seems to prove that flights are the safest mode of transport from any viewpoint. All arguments to the contrary appear to be based upon biased opinion and ungrounded fears rather than rational and reasonable considerations. Fear and even superstition appear to be one of the main factors in the perception of flying as less safe than driving. One important factor is the fact that flying requires the relinquishment of control. The safety of all passengers rely on the ability of the pilot to adequately steer the aircraft and follow air control instructions. It also relies on the ability of air traffic controllers to give clear and accurate instructions. The advantage for travellers is that they can relax without the possibility of concentration loss or driver fatigue; factors that often play a significant role in road accidents. The fear of flying is therefore generally based upon the perception that flying is dangerous, rather than any empirical proof of such danger. Statistics that relate to driving and flying are so significantly different that it is difficult to deny the implication that flying is not only the safest mode of transport by far, but also the most convenient.


Blalock, G., Kadiyali, V., and Simon, DH (2005, Dec. 5). Driving Fatalities After 9/11: A Hidden Cost of Terrorism. Retrieved from:

Jones, P. (2003). Letter to the Editors: Flying vs. Driving. American Scientist. Retrieved from:,y.2003,no.3,content.true, page.1,css.print/issue.aspx

Kersten, M. (2011). How Did Aviation Change the Travel Experience? Grin Verlag.

Sivak, M. And Flannagan, M. (n.d.) Flying and Driving after the September 11 Attacks. American Scientist. Retrieved from:

Thompson, A. (2009, Jun 1). Flying is Safer Than Ever. Live Science. Retrieved from:

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