Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

27 Replies

Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Wesley Schlenker on Sep 4, 2018 8:16 pm

I have been flying as a hobby since I attended college in 1982, and have been asked the same question many times, "How dangerous is it?"  My father was killed in a small airplane when I was a child, while working as a CFI.  His death was the result of a solo'ing student who entered the pattern straight-in (improperly) with no radio call, and ran over my father and his student on final approach.  I have never felt emotional fear about flying.  But I carry a "stewardship" responsibility for my life and the lives of my passengers, and so I have always devoured any statistics I could find that would tell me flying was not stupid.  I am part-owner of a Cessna 210, which I have used to fly my family of six all over the nation, including a trips over the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and even circling the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July!  I want to believe all of this is safe.  The most human way to evaluate risk is to compare it to something else that is familiar to us.  After many decades of casually looking at numbers, this is how I answer the safety question now:  "To be honest, the general aviation community is not very honest with themselves about the risk of flying.  Flying in an airliner is incredibly safe, even safer than the drive to the airport.  But flying small airplanes, on average, is not as safe as commercial flying.  The numbers are very rough and unreliable, but from what I have seen, an amateur pilot flying a small airplane faces roughly the same risk as riding a motorcycle.  If you fly from your home city to another city, it would probably be slightly safer to fly a small airplane than to drive a motorcycle, because it takes much less time to get there in an airplane (fewer hours of risk exposure).  But if you take a two-our flight and compare it to a two-hour motorcycle ride, you would probably be safer on a motorcycle."  Then, to put it all in perspective, I quickly compare both of those risks to the risk of paddling a canoe, paddleboard, or kayak (paddlesports, which I also engage in).  Apparently paddlesports are extremely high in risk, blowing away flying and motorcycles for the likelihood of a fatality in a given hour of the activity.

As a pilot, our first reaction is to say that we are safer pilots than the other pilots who created those bad statistics.  They made stupid mistakes that we won't make.  But we can't all be safer than the next guy.  Surveys of any group tend to show that most people think they are "above average," and pilots are no exception.  We need to own the risk, before we can change it.  We need to assume that those bad statistics came from pilots exactly like us.  That feels bleak, but it makes us more serious about safety.

I have served as a volunteer pilot for the U.S. Civil Air Patrol, and have heard they made an agreement to share their safety statistics with AOPA for analysis.  I am dying (bad choice of words) to know what those statistics say, because CAP uses amateur pilots to fly GA airplanes (Cessna 172's and 182's), and uses many processes that others could emulate if they have resulted in safer flying.  CAP requires a "flight release"--getting permission from another person before every flight, who verifies that you have filled out a risk matrix questionnaire for the flight (adding up risk points based on flight profile, pilot currency, etc.), you have checked weather, and you are committed to safety.  CAP pilots must also pass a thorough flight review annually instead of biannually.   And when an accident happens, CAP knows every detail about the experience level, ratings, currency, etc. of the pilot involved.  If CAP flying is no safer than a motorcycle ride, maybe we all need to hang up our wings.  I like to think that I can do something to control the risk of flying, but I can't do much more than CAP.  If CAP has found a process that makes a big safety difference, they need to share the data in an open way, with the rest of the flying community.  We can implement some of its practices on a voluntary basis, if they actually work.

I am not a professional statistician, and would love for someone who knows the data to correct my motorcycle riding comparison.  But too often, people hide behind the rough and unreliable nature of the data, and make no estimates at all.  Stop hiding behind the saying, "The data is not reliable."  That does not mean flying is safe, and gets us nowhere.  Make some reasonable comparisons with other life activities, based on the rough data that we have, so we can own the risk.  And change it. 


 
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Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Ronald Levy on Sep 5, 2018 7:58 pm

There are solid statistics to show that the safety record of owner-flown light single-engine airplanes is about the same as motorcycles on the road.  OTOH, there are equally solid statistics to show that when the same planes are flown under more stringent rules, like Part 135 or CAP or other volunteer groups, the accident rate goes way, way down.  The bottom line is that the disturbingly high light single GA record is largely due to owner-pilots doing dumb things or failing to maintain the necesssary levels of proficiency for safe flying.  While many motorcycle accidents are due to the improper actions of 4-wheelers, there are very, very few light single GA accidents in which anyone besides the pilot can be blamed.  The motorcycling community is limited in its ability to improve its own record by the fact that too many factors are beyond their control.  OTOH, if we could build a better safety culture in the owner-flown light single GA community, we could make a vast improvement in our safety record.  IOW, in the words of Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by John Gunn on Oct 7, 2018 11:07 am

I'd suggest you are comparing apples & mangos, assuming by m/c you mean street bikes; riding (especially in the cities) is far more dangerous & unlike flying, you are likely to be killed or maimed by some senile/txting/ or aggressive moron behind the wheel, usually turning in front of you or changing lanes w/o looking.  
Flying, you're likely to be the one at fault; LoC / stall.
Well trained, recreational GA pilots have no good reason to do the above, so dont!

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Ronald Levy on Oct 7, 2018 10:48 pm

John Gunn:
I'd suggest you are comparing apples & mangos, assuming by m/c you mean street bikes; riding (especially in the cities) is far more dangerous & unlike flying,

Do you have some statistics to support that statement?  I really don't the number bear that out vis a vis owner-flown private light aircraft..

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Patrick Stibila on Oct 8, 2018 5:59 am

Was the aircraft you yielded to a turbine aircraft ?
 

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by John Gunn on Oct 8, 2018 9:27 am

Ron; no stats, just alotta riding experience, like horses, its not so much a ? of "if", just when & how bad is it going to be! Now i hope thats not the case for my e-fox, i think thats one of the gr8t things about flying ... you are above & out of reach, of most of the 2 dimensional chaos!     : }

Pat, no it was a cessna 15x, but what are your wider thoughts on the matter, has it happened to you too ?  Do you think its a "best practice" ?   ( this is a reply from my post on the safety discussion grp)

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Ronald Levy on Oct 8, 2018 12:46 pm

John Gunn:
Ron; no stats, just alotta riding experience, like horses, its not so much a ? of "if", just when & how bad is it going to be! Now i hope thats not the case for my e-fox, i think thats one of the gr8t things about flying ... you are above & out of reach, of most of the 2 dimensional chaos!     : }

All the studies I've seen support that original thesis -- that the accident and fatality rates for light single-engine non-professionally flown GA are comparable to those for motorcycles operated on the street, and higher than those for private automobiles.  Google around and you can probably find those stats.

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by John Gunn on Oct 9, 2018 7:36 am

I'd rather fold, than have to research it  ; ),  but back to the OP, 1stly; mega-condolences Wesley on your dad & i'm amazed that didn't effect your emotions regarding flying.  
I do however humbly suggest, (since you brought it up) flying your entire family in a single recip. engine a/c on any kind of a regular basis, especially over terrain as unforgiving as the g-canyon, is something you want to really think about, & i'm glad you are.
For me, I dont like doing it in a 737, & am xtra vigilant even in the family car!

Tailwinds / JG

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by R Dant on Oct 15, 2018 9:59 am

I am a 3,500 hour pilot and a 50,000 mile motorcyclist (1250 hours at 40mph). I've looked at statistics galore and have concluded two things. One, it's easier to get meaningful data from intra-activity stats than to compare across activities. Two, the general public are quite unaware of all the activities they are involved in that have similar risks to my activities. Heck, 6000 people are killed just walking down the sidewalk and crossing the street every day.
 

https://danger.mongabay.com/injury_death.htm


On a moto, just knowing that the most common accident occurs when a car turns in front of me, helps me adjust. Knowing that VFR into IMC is a big killer helps me adjust. Sport bikes and "yutes" by far pad the fatality risks just as certain pilots and planes have more accidents.
 

Beyond the initial motorcycle training (if one chooses to take it), I don't hear much discussion on improving riding safety. I don't get invited to safety seminars. I don't know of large moto orgs that encourage safety. I'm sure they are there, but general aviation is much more engaged in trying to reduce risk.
 

BTW, I feel slightly safer in the airplane in VFR weather, but safer on the moto compared to flying in IMC. And, neither sport feels nearly as dangerous as I expected before I became familiar with them.

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Edward Poole on Oct 15, 2018 1:19 pm

So I'll chime in here, I'm a Biometrician (stats for environmental and forestry), and I can say with 95% confidence that statistics like this are in the eye of the manipulator.  What I mean by this is simple:  we are all inherently biased.  We are all pilots or student pilots, we are therefor judging the risk based on our experience and are willing to throw out "outliers" like VFR into IMC, CFIT as things that "we" would never do.  This holds true for motorcyclists, how many think that not wearing a helmet a safe practice, "not me I wear a helmet" would be a typical response, so they would/could discount that scenario as not being a realistic risk in their case.  I will make this assertion as well:  It greatly depends on your perspective.  I'll give you an example: my brother rides motorcycles, I fly planes.  Both have inherent risk, I watched an ATP rated pilot kill himself in a plane (stall spin on a bad go-around attempt) the day before my checkride, my brother has never  known anyone who died on a motorcycle.  In my families mind flying is more dangerous because they have first hand (also called anecdotal) evidence.  Is this the case?  Well probably not, but I can't seem to convince anyone of that because of their perception/bias. This all goes back to what truth our brains are rationalizing:  Objective truth, Personal Truth, or Political Truth.

Objective Truth - Flying and riding motorcycles are both inherently more risky than driving a car.  This is backed up by hard facts, nothing really to dispute.
Personal Truth - I think it is less risky than riding a motorcycle if I keep my currency up and avoid the major pitfalls like VFR into IMC by using my common sense.
Political Truth - just fabricate a number then convince someone else it's believable, it has to be true then...

In all seriousness, if you look at forms of transportation every single one is risky.  Heck breathing the air can give you cancer; you could slip, fall and become a quadriplegic in your shower tonight!  If you try to quantify risk by looking at two separate and distinct activities there are all kinds of pitfalls.  The bottom line for me is this:  I get out of bed every morning, I get in a car and drive to work because I need money.  I take a risk for a reward, if the risk outweighs the reward in your opinion than don't participate in the activity. In my "personal truth" flying at 6500' VFR on a smooth severe clear spring day is more than enough reward for the risk, so I'm in....    

Re: Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

Posted by Gary Palmer on Oct 22, 2018 10:13 am

We cannot change anyones behavior or action but our own, this is an means for us to implement a change to become safer!  Maybe the self-licking ice cream cone metaphor applies to what I will offer, and I repeat what I was told without having viewed the statistics which are claimed to support it.

I attend the FAA Wings Safety seminars.  Most of them begin with statements about becoming safer pilots (it is a journey with no end).  Then they explain that the whole program is focused on teaching better skills with an understanding of safe (or unsafe) situations.  They claim the numbers back up their claim that pilots attending these safety seminars are having fewer accidents.  THAT is pretty bold.  The attributed cause is that attending is an active interest in improving and it works.

So the next question is how to get more pilots to attend.  The FAA has created a devious solution that just needs larger deployment.  By attending 3 of those wings seminars and completing 3 "exercises" with an instructor who can check it off, you get your biennial flight review (which is supposed to now simply be a flight review since not all are biennial).  The idea is that instead of a big push once every 2 years to "requalify", you do these 6 things over the course of 2 years. 
If you consider a plot of proficiency compared to time, you complete a review and proficiency is high.  Skills deteriorate and proficiency drops over the next 2 years.  To get pushed back up at the 2 year mark.  This describes what is called a saw tooth wave which can have a very large difference from top to bottom.

The Wings safety program is supposed to level the curve a bit by spreading events over the 2 years and each time you do something your proficiency climbs back up.  This helps keep you better prepared and not as much proficiency loss.

The best part (from personal experience) is that the wings activities you do with an instructor are clearly defined with criteria, so you pass or not.  There is no subjectivity inserted by the CFI.  There are still opportunities to teach, but you know beforehand if you will pass or not.  This, IMHO, makes it better for the pilot.

I am in no way connected to the FAA or the Wings program.  I had a biennial review from hell and wanted a better way to stay proficient, so I am a supporter.  The online seminars (provided thru AOPA) are free.