Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

17 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 Arthur Friedman on Oct 22, 2018 1:46 pm

I am a 5400-hour, 34-year amateur pilot. I currently live in my hangar, and my Cessna 210 is my primary means of long-distance travel, since I shun airlines. I have been on an airliner once this century -- when I had to pick up a motorcycle 1600 miles away.

However, I was a professional motorcyclist. I have ridden for over 50 years. My 42-year career was riding and writing for motorcycle magazines. I rode virtually every day, primarily in Los Angeles traffic. I have ridden about 1.6 million miles, much more than I have driven and about twice the distance I have flown. My particular interest as a motojournalist was safety.

Based on my personal experience, neither activity will kill you. smiley However, the NTSB seems to regard motorcycling as the more dangerous activity, pegging your chances of dying at 28 times per mile greater than in a car.


(In my opinion, the study that was based on was quite poor, with so little data that almost any conclusion could be challenged.)

It is difficult to make comparisons like this, and there are many misconceptions about both. A previous poster mentioned that the biggest danger in motorcycling was other drivers who violated your right-of-way. However, in the latest year for which I have seen such stats, most of the motorcycle fatalities were in single-vehicle crashes. Lots of riders think that riding on freeways and open highways is the most dangerous thing they can do, but statistically, they are much safer in those situations than on city streets or smaller rural roads. As with pilots, motorcyclists keep making the same fatal mistakes: riding without a DOT helmet (which reduces your odds in a crash by about a third), riding after drinking (one beer makes you 44 times more likely to crash), not doing enough to be visible to other drivers (riding in blind spots, wearing bright clothing -- especially helmet -- and painting the front of the bike bright colors, using high beam during the day), not developing or maintaining skills, which leads to running off corners or inadequate braking. Unfortunately, those riders who take learn-to-ride courses don't seem to crash any less than those who do. I am unaware of any stats about riders who have taken high-performance racetrack-type training.

Aviators seem to do a better job of educating themselves about safety, but we still kill ourselves doing the same avoidable stuff -- stalling while maneuvering at low altitude, continued VFR into IMC, running out fuel (which almost always seems insane after the fact), flying while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Unlike aviation, the final precipitating event is usually sudden -- an unexpected tight turn, a violation of right-of-way, slippery pavement, etc.

I recently looked at a year of NTSB Final Reports for fatal US plane crashes. Among the factors that we don't seem to rail against is flying low. There are an amazing number of pilots who get dead after hitting towers, wires, trees, hills, etc. while cruising along down low. There are more who die because their low altitudes don't allow them to recover when something goes wrong. One of three midairs also happened when two ag planes collided down low.  There are other things where the pilot knows he is taking a chance but does it anyway. There were two dozen fatal crashes involving VFR into IMC, a few more where pilots took off with known mechanical defects, more than a dozen where the pilot was substance impaired, a couple where the "pilot" wasn't qualified to fly the airplane, and a few where using the provided harness likely would have prevented fatal injury. An amazing number of morons still run out of fuel, but I only counted six fatal crashes as a result.

The airplane is more likely to fail than the pilot. There was only one fatal crash where the pilot was determined to have suffered a medical impairment in flight -- a loss of vision -- but a few dozen where things went bad after a mechanical problem About 20% of them might have been revealed by better preflight inspections, however.

One aside. The OP talks about his dad being killed in an accident where he was involved with a student pilot who made a straight-in to an uncontrolled airport. There is currently a very active thread on the AOPA Forums (the older and more robust version of this board) that addresses the topic of straight-ins at uncontrolled fields. Many think it is contrary to current FAA rules. In fact, it's not:


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

Posted by John Womer on Oct 22, 2018 4:54 pm

My answer: 

"Both riding motorcycles and flying small general aviation airplanes are comparatively safe if, IF, one is well trained and he does not take unnecessary risks."

When I lived in rural Maine 20 years ago, I seriously considered buying a motorcycle and I did extensive research on motorcycle safety. At first blush, based on the data I could find, the safety record for motorcycles overall wasn't pretty. Looking deeper into that data showed, however, that controlling for two risky behaviors eliminated more than 50% of the accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Those two behaviors were speeding (and not just a few M.P.H. over the speed limit but criminal speeding of 20+ M.P.H. over the speed limit) and DUI (and not just "buzzed" but legally intoxicated).

In the same vein, as a comparatively new Sport Pilot with approx. 450 hrs. logged over the last five years (375 hrs. as PIC), I have made it a point to study as many accident reports as I can -- reading Aviation Safety Magazine, Kathryn's Reports, FAA and NTSB reports, AOPA Air Safety Institute videos on Youtube, and AOPA "Never Again" podcasts. IMHO, while it is clear that any pilot (me included) is capable of making mistakes (some of which can and do lead to disastrous outcomes) no matter how good and conscientious he/she tries to be, way to many serious general aviation accidents are the result gross carelessness and negligence. e.g.. "Planning" a winter flight that includes night flying from CA to CO over the Rocky Mountains and only checking weather reports (online) once, four days before departure, flying into a blizzard, and then into a mountain... Knowingly flying a plane that had been tagged as not airworthy by and A&P due to major engine problems... Taking off after being warned by an FBO or another pilot that your passenger/fuel load puts you 30% over MTOW... etc., etc.  
N731J Jabiru J230-SP KOXC Waterbury-Oxford Airport, Connecticut

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

Posted by Daniel Jenkins on Oct 29, 2018 9:01 am

I would love for somebody to show me statistics that show a motorcycle is as safe as flying a GA airplane because I don't believe it is so. I have done both (well, I sold my BMW motorcycle earlier this year after riding since 2000) and am still flying after 55 years. Being on the road with today's drivers on two wheels...well, if there is an accident, the two-wheeler always loses. 


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

Posted by Mike Barker on Oct 29, 2018 9:03 am

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.

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

Posted by Max Reason on Nov 5, 2018 2:10 pm

As someone who rode motorcycles for several years on a daily basis, plus two coast-to-coast round trips... and someone who has a private pilot license and flew rented Cessnas... perhaps I have a basis to give my gut feeling.

My feeling is... small airplanes are less dangerous, both per mile and per hour.

Note that I didn't feel terribly afraid on motorcycles either, but then I was an alert and prudent motorcycle pilot (zero accidents in somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 miles).  I have no dirt bike experience, so that's a whole other question that I do not address.

But I will say this.  If you are an alert, prudent motorcycle pilot, and you get killed on your motorcycle, the chances someone else caused the accident is probably greater than 80%.  Whereas, if you get killed in your small private airplane, the chances someone else caused the accident is probably less than 20%.

I could go into greater detail, but others have done that already in this thread.  I will add, though, that my favorite flying was to totally wild and crazy places in extreme boonies.  Not just to fly past gorgeous spires, canyons and mountains... but to STOL land in places most pilots wouldn't land for a million bucks.  But ultimately, that's because they never practiced steep, slow controlled descents and super-short landings somewhere safe before they tried in the boonies.  The only reason I add this is, to say that even though the flying I did was generally considered less safe, I still think flying small planes is safer.

Besides, flying is more often a great deal more fun than riding motorcycles, even though they can be great fun too (especially once you get out of town).  And finally, if I'm going to die on the ground, I'd rather not have been killed by some random irresponsible jerk!  :-)

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

Posted by Wilson Rivera on Nov 29, 2018 10:50 pm

A basic research that I completed over one year ago in comparing "High" risk activities (Insurance Purpose) found that Flying a small aircraft and ridding a motorcycle had the same high risk value. 

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

Posted by Michael Walpole on Nov 30, 2018 12:40 pm

Wilson Rivera:
A basic research that I completed over one year ago in comparing "High" risk activities (Insurance Purpose) found that Flying a small aircraft and ridding a motorcycle had the same high risk value. 

Is there a reference to your work?
Mike W