Which is Safer, a Motorcycle or an Airplane?

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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 Lamberto Roscioli on Oct 7, 2019 2:58 pm

I read in an AOPA  article that boating has the same safety record as GA and motorcycles...  I do all three...  It'a amazing I'm still alive (although I did break my neck in a motorcycle accident).  Fun has its costs...