Why you shouldn’t fear flying, in one graph

July 7, 2013

Last week, I took a horrible flight. Not Asiana Flight 214 horrible. Just really turbulent. Full of those moments when the plane lurches and everyone on board gasps. We even had a few of the drops that make you feel weightless. It wasn't much fun.

We landed safely, of course, and I climbed shakily into a cab. It was almost 1 a.m., and I was happy to be on solid ground. We were still about an hour from my house, and though my driver didn't really know where he was going, he chatted enthusiastically on his bluetooth as he made his way there. It felt great driving smoothly on solid roads. It was also insanely dangerous compared to when I was eyeing the air sickness bag on that plane.

The numbers on this are clear: I could have died that night. But if I had, it almost certainly would've been in that taxi.

You've probably heard the old line that the most dangerous part of flying is the ride to the airport. This graph, which Matthew Yglesias made using data that the airline association collected from various federal sources, drives it home: You're over 70 times likelier to die in a car accident than a plane crash.

 

Note the units: Fatalities per 100 million passenger miles. This isn't, in other words, a graph showing that more people take cars than take planes. This holds passengers equal.

The Asiana Flight was a nightmare for those aboard. But planes remain extraordinarily, almost unbelievably, safe. That's in part because plane crashes affect the national psyche -- and the airline industry -- in a way that car crashes simply don't. People hear about car crashes and move on with their day. They even move on with plans to buy a new car.

When a plane crashes, it's covered live on every network -- and it can destroy the airline. Remember ValuJet? They sure hope you don't. After their 1996 crash, they had to merge with a smaller airline and give up their name in order to survive.

The airline industry has an enormous incentive to make sure planes pretty much never crash. Safety checks, training certifications  and equipment redundancies that would strike us as insane if applied to cars are routinely insisted on in planes. And it works. In the United States, at least, planes operated by the major airlines almost never crash.

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Sarah Kliff | July 7, 2013