You may think that traveling by plane is inherently a more dangerous mode of transportation than driving an automobile. After all, an airplane crash is catastrophic, with more loss of life, injury and property damage than a car accident. A few U.S. government statistics can shed light on this question.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration compiles and researches accident statistics for the entire country. Its 2008 Traffic Safety Facts Data boils down the millions of accidents and other statistics to 1.27 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In contrast, the 1998 rate was 1.58 fatalities per 100 million miles of car travel.


The National Transportation Safety Board compiles general aviation accident data. Preliminary statistics for 2008 show only 20 accidents for U.S. air carriers operating scheduled service. This works out to nearly zero accidents per million flying miles. No fatal accidents were recorded, and only five people were seriously injured in airplane accidents.


In absolute numbers, driving is more dangerous in fatality risk for the average person, with more than 5 million accidents compared to 20 accidents in flying for the entire airline industry, not just commercial airline flights. A more direct comparison per 100 million miles pits driving's 1.27 fatalities and 80 injuries against flying's lack of deaths and almost no injuries, which again shows commercial flights and other general air travel to be safer.


The National Safety Council compiled an odds-of-dying table for 2008, which further illustrates the relative risks of flying and driving safety. It calculated the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident to be 1 in 98 for a lifetime. For air and space transport (including air taxis and private flights), the odds were 1 in 7,178 for a lifetime, according to the table. Fatality rates for humans show much lower numbers in airline travel, intense airline safety standards making it one of the safest ways to travel, especially across long distances.


Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts, according to David Ropeik, risk communication instructor at Harvard School of Public Health. Driving affords more personal control, making it feel safer.

In addition, plane crashes are catastrophic, killing more people at once, which grabs more attention and makes people more sensitive to them. Car crashes happen every day and spread the loss over time, making their combined effects less noticeable. Keep in mind also the extensive aviation safety protocols in place through the FAA and IATA (International Air Transport Association), length of pilot training versus training to drive a car, and presence of air traffic controllers who keep flying safer for all involved.