Driving Versus Flying: The Debate Is Settled!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that flying by commercial airline is a much safer form of travel than driving. So how to explain that queasiness in your gut every time the plane gets in line for takeoff? And how to explain the sense of safety you feel when you get behind the wheel of a car? An examination of fatality statistics suggests that your gut feeling isn’t so wrong after all.

Those who say flying is far safer than driving tend to prove it through a direct comparison of fatalities. In a typical three-month period, according to the airline industry, more people die on the nation’s highways than have perished in all the accidents in the history of U.S. aviation. Or they might compare deaths per passenger mile traveled. From 1980 to 1992, the average number of fatalities in the United States was 37 times greater in passenger cars and taxis than on scheduled flights per mile traveled.

But if you measure fatalities per hour , rather than per mile, then cars and commercial flights come out just about even. Meaning that you have just about the same chance of dying during a three-hour flight as you do in a three-hour car trip.

This conclusion is based on the number of deaths per passenger hour traveled in the year 1995, a fairly unremarkable year for transportation fatalities. Here’s what you get (discounting the deaths of drunk drivers themselves, but not their victims): In cars, one person died per 5.5 million passenger hours traveled, versus one death per 6 million passenger hours in commercial airline flights-a slim difference at best!

Oh, the experts like to say we fear flying because we hate to give up control, or even the illusion of control. “The evolutionary adaptation of fear has perhaps been perverted by technology to the extent that certain technological developments occur on a far faster time scale than evolution,” said David Helfand, a professor of astrophysics at Columbia University who uses the flying-versus-driving conundrum to illustrate irrational thinking for non-science majors. “We haven’t had time to evolve rational fears in response to technology and manmade artifices.”

But Professor Helf and’s colleague, Paul Meier, the chairman of Columbia University’s statistics department, liked the idea of comparing fatalities per hour in each mode. “If we want to go to San Francisco by one means or the other, then deaths per passenger mile is the right way to calculate,” he said. “But the risk per hour tells us how large the risk of death would be at any average moment along the way in either mode.”

But cars also have certain safety advantages over planes. If the plane you happen to board is doomed to go down, there’s nothing you can do about it. But drivers can do all sorts of things to cut their risk of death-using seat belts, driving in big cars, staying out of the company of trucks, not driving drunk, sticking to the speed limit on country roads, staying alert.

In the end, the idea of measuring fatalities per hour in each mode of travel even won over the unerringly rational Professor Helfand-sort of.

“[If] the odds of dying in a car and in a plane are comparable per hour spent in doing each of those activities, a reasonable and rational response would be to feel an equal amount of fear during both acts,” he said. “I would still prefer to fly.”

-Greg Sargent

The Monica Diaries

Continued excerpts from several hundred loose pages, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, which were dumped on The Observer ‘s front stoop and labeled, “The attached (sic) is my story, the story of a white house intirn (sic) in my own words, not that bitch Linda. ML.”

August 10, 1997, 11:42 P.M.

dear diary,

Neysa’s in town and Big Creep called me to come over for a “visit” saturday afternoon so i’m like Guess what buster my friend is here can she come too ? and he mumbles and says Ok so Neysa and i go to WH and i’m like Hello there Betty can you bring me and my friend two decaf cappucinos? and Schmucko shakes Neysa’s hand and shows us the paintings and all the boring crap and since Neysa knows i keep winking at her and then Schmucko introduces us to the two navel guards who stand there all day and i wink at one who gets all red and before we leave Schmucko grabs my arm and says Come back tonight, and i’m like Hey, i am not your beck and call, and he looks confused then Neysa and i go shopping and everything we see sucks so we split a frozefruit and then Neysa does her thing about being “blunt” which is really her excuse for being a total bitch and says Well, Mon, what about Hillary … and i’m like Well , Neysa, after he leaves WH she’s history and he and i are going to live in Hollywood and she’s like God that’s sooooo romantic but i know she’s thinking, Yeah, right .… and later i call Creepo and he’s like, Me and Vern are having drinks at Vern’s at 6 and do you girls want to come? and i’m like, maybe, and he’s like, You never told me you had such an attractive friend and i’m thinking whoa, asshole alert! and so i say Oops, forgot, i have this party tonight? and he’s like Oh well by the way I need Neysa’s adress and phone for the WH mailing list and i say Look it up , Mr. Comander in Chief and I hang up and

feel rotten …

August 15, 1997, 1:50 A.M.

dear diary,

L. came for dinner which we never ate but forgot in the microwave but when she got here under her coat she was wearing her “relaxing” clothes which was this gross purple thing she calls a kimoano and it has this dragon on it and she’s brought videos Personal Best and something artsy called Claire of the Moon and she makes bloody maries and i’m sitting on the floor and L. is like You need to relax and she’s behind me rubbing my shoulders and i say I hate myself for liking Creepo so much and she stops rubbing and i hear a sniffle and think O lordy not this again and she says Oh Mon, its tragic how this man treats you and i’m like Things will get better when we live in Hollywood and L. lights a marlboro light and says Yes, i’m sure it will all work out, you always seem to get the guy, don’t you? then she’s like Well, its best that i go, and she forgets the videos … later in bed the phone rings and its Creepo and he’s like Mon, I know you want us to share more, and i’m like yes … and he’s like, You know my life was painful as a boy and i feel bad for him so i say, Really? and he’s like, Yes I never knew my real father, so I say But you’re a great father! and he’s like That’s sweet of you to say, and then i say Once when i was little i saw this fight of my parents and i hid under the bed and while i tell him this i start to cry, and he’s like That is very sad Mon, I really feel connected to you and then he says What are you wearing I want to picture you, so i’m like Well blue cotton PJs and hes like Mmmmmmmmmm , and i go back to the story about hiding under the bed, but he says Are you wearing panties? and i’m like, Um, yes , and then I say Well my therapist said my parents wounded me inside, and he says, I’m getting hard, Mon, and i think Oh brother , here we go again … Driving Versus Flying: The Debate Is Settled!