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 Dave Rice on May 13, 2019 1:27 pm

Mike Barker:
The stats are different for each person, and mostly dependent on their spouse. For instance, my wife hates motorcycles but loves airplanes, so my entire life is much safer with an airplane. My brother’s wife wouldn’t get near a 4 seater single aircraft, but loves to ride across  the country on the back of their Harley, so his life is much safer with a motorcycle.

Your post makes no sense.  Statistical probability does not change based upon how your brother's wife (or your wife) "feels".  Motorcycles are by far the most dangerous form of transportation in common use by Americans.  See the NTSB website for sources of this fact.  These stats are based upon both fatalities per mile covered as well as time spent in transit.

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

Posted by Dave Rice on May 13, 2019 1:39 pm

Lawrence Lawn:
Want good statistics? Go to insurance companies. I have been riding motorcycles for over 50 years, driving cars about the same and flying single engine certificated aircraft for almost as long.
Check your insurance rates for all three. My circa $45,000. Cheetah costs about half of a new car of the same value. Why? Because insurance companies know risks! Proportionate motorcycle rates are the highest of all.

You state that your $45k Cheetah costs about half of a new car "OF THE SAME VALUE".  This makes no sense.  A $45k airplane cost half as much as a $45k car?  Also, are you serious that if you want good statistics, you should go ask INSURANCE COMPANIES?  Reliable statistics on fatalities per hour (time-based) or per mile (distance-based) can be had from the NTSB.  Insurance companies would certainly skew their research to support their business model and the rates their actuaries set for various forms of transportation.  Would you expect a for profit business to illustrate something other than that which supports their business' profit motive?  Get real.

Bottom line is that GA is 10-20 times more likely to cause a fatality than automobiles (depending upon whether you measure this based on time spent or distance covered), but that this not the question being asked here.  The NTSB has clear statistics on the fatality rate for motocycles as well.  See NTSB.gov.

Attached is the research illustrating the "10-20 times" thing I mention above related to GA vs automobiles (attachment's description is mis-labeled as comparing GA to commercial aviation...it really compared GA to cars).  Apparently attachments' metadata cannot be edited once posted to this website.
Attached files

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

Posted by Eric Schaffer on May 14, 2019 8:21 am

 Well I’m not so sure I agree with all of this. I’ve only been flying about 8 years now and I don’t think I’m a great pilot but a safe pilot. I fly planes that are inspected every year and take a bi-annual review. Years ago I rode a motorcycle cycle and so do/did a lot of friends. I’ve lost more friends off motorcycles than in plane crashes. Not that I haven’t lost some in plane crashes.
The big difference is everyone I’ve lost in a motorcycle crash was someone else’s fault and not from bad driving. Everyone I’ve lost from a plane crash was their fault, mostly from poor or defective equipment. Only one in a certified plane. Not sure if this helps. By the way I was taken off my motorcycle by a driver that didn’t see me and turned in front of me. I never had a chance to hit the brakes only the side of her car at 50 miles an hour. I was lucky and didn’t brake anything other than the bike. I don’t think I’ll ever ride again. Too many bad drivers out there, not that many bad pilots. Only a few of them. 

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

Posted by Eric Schaffer on May 14, 2019 8:34 am

There is another problem with the data collection between motorcycles and general aviation. If I wreck my motorcycle and don’t get hurt, I can just junk or fix it. If I have just about any happen with a GA plane, the FAA and NTSB are going to be there before I can even move the plane. No hiding there. 

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

Posted by Joe Stubblefield on May 20, 2019 10:03 am

I certainly feel much safer flying than on a motorcycle. Anecdotally I can say like others, I know folks not with us anymore from both activities. I have been knocked off a motorcycle by cars and trucks 3 times and choose not to ride anymore, except when down on the farm. I have had a fair number of “close calls” in an airplane, again mostly the other guy at fault. Reward/Risk ratio keeps me flying. Civil Air Patrol and Coast Guard Auxiliary flight training give me a little edge over many pilots. Also safety atmosphere in my flying club certainly helps. I suggest everyone back off a couple steps from the microwave when warming up dinner!

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

Posted by William Shipman on May 20, 2019 11:47 am

Let’s assume you are governed by safety.  Let’s also assume you will be travelling from Beverly, MA to Houlton, ME.  And, let’s also assume you own an airplane and a motorcycle.  Which do you choose to take to Houlton? 

You’ve read the data on safety, and they reveal (for the purpose of this exercise) that motorcycles are safer than airplanes.  Do you take the motorcycle?  If you answer yes because motorcycles are safer, then you are assuming that the aggregate data on relative safety are applicable to your trip to Houlton.  That assumption may not hold depending on the methodology applied to the determination of the safety of each.  The converse is also true if the original assumption is that airplanes are safer than motorcycles.

As an instrument-rated pilot, and owner of a Maule MXT-7, as well as a motorcycle rider and enthusiast, I find this discussion a bit off the mark.  Both forms of transportation invite risk.  It seems to me that the question of relative risk should be mission specific.  For example, I will be travelling from Beverly to Houlton.  I will be fly fishing for three days, and will need the requisite gear.  Time is an issue, but not determinative.  Do I take the plane or the motorcycle?  The plane will make the trip in about 2 ¼ hours, the motorcycle about 5 ½ hours.  I won’t fly unless the weather is VMC. 

I don’t know what the relative risk is for this mission; but I think it could be argued either way.  What I do know is that, irrespective of the choice of transportation, the risk is not zero.   My advice to myself is that if I’m significantly troubled by the risk of flying my Maule, and that risk certainly does exist, then I should not fly.  At all.  By so doing, I will reduce my risk from some number to zero.  I will also reduce the extraordinary benefit from flying.  In the most simplistic sense, this is just another one of life’s tradeoffs.   Weather depending, I will make the trip in two weeks.  In the Maule.

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

Posted by Herman Cox on May 20, 2019 1:34 pm

A motorcycle is 35 times more dangerous than driving. GA airplanes are 5 times as dangerous as driving. Airlines are twice as safe as driving.