Airline safety: Is it safer to fly, drive or take the train?

There have been a number of high-profile plane disasters recently, from the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 in Ukraine to crashes in Taiwan and Mali. CBC News looks at how air travel compares to other modes of transit in terms of safety.

A car is still the most dangerous way to travel, though fatalities at 46-year low

The crash of a TransAsia Airways turboprop plane on Taiwan's offshore island Penghu is part of a cluster of fatal air crashes that occurred in July 2014. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

There have been a number of dramatic air travel incidents in recent weeks, from the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over the Ukraine, which killed 298 people, to a crash in Taiwan that killed at least 48 and the disappearance and likely crash of an Air Algerie plane carrying 116 people.

The dramatic nature of these events has once again raised questions about the safety of air travel, and how it compares to other forms of transit.

It's difficult to get comprehensive safety figures for any given type of transportation, since there are discrepancies from country to country in the way such information is documented. But here is a look at what is known about the safety records of the most ubiquitous means of transportation.

Train

The statistics on worldwide rail travel aren’t consistent, and the majority of the available data covers Europe.

In July 2013, a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people. (Ryan Remiorz/Pool/Canadian Press)

The Economist reported that, in 2011, 1,239 people were killed in over 2,300 railway accidents in the European Union.

According to the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, the worldwide fatality rate for trains is 0.4 for every one billion passenger kilometres. The report noted that this figure is "considered representative of developed countries with good road safety records."

Based on data from the National Safety Council, the New York Times calculated that the lifetime risk of an American dying in a train crash was one in 156,169.

In Canada, there are hundreds of train collisions and derailments every year, but few are fatal and many occur off the main tracks. Many passenger or cargo train crashes that result in injury or death happen at road or rail intersections and involve cars or pedestrians trespassing when the rail car has right of way.

Bus

In September 2013, an OC Transpo bus in Ottawa collided with a Via Rail train during the morning commute, killing six people. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Determining the safety of buses as a mode of transportation is difficult, because there aren’t many statistics available that separate bus accidents from general road accidents.

A 2010 report by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers found that the worldwide rate of bus deaths was four per every one billion kilometers travelled — the same rate as for cars.

Air

In recent weeks, there have been a cluster of fatal air crashes, the most horrifying of which is the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet as a result of a surface-to-air missile fired from the conflict-ridden area of east Ukraine.

According to the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives in Geneva, although we are only halfway through 2014, there have already been more than twice as many aviation fatalities this year (991) than in 2013 (459).

A harsh landing at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013, killed three people aboard Asiana Flight 214. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

Even so, experts agree that flying has never been safer. Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at M.I.T., has been widely quoted as saying a person could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before dying in a plane crash.

Why has air travel become safer? The structural and mechanical parts of planes have become more reliable while navigation systems have become more sophisticated, thus mitigating the chance of collisions due to poor visibility.

Automobiles

Of all the modes of transport, car travel is still the most treacherous. According to the 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety, produced by the World Health Organization, about 1.24 million people die on roads worldwide every year.

Fatalities by mode of transportation in 2010

Type of transportCanadaU.S
Air60450
Highway2,18632,885
Rail81601
Recreational boating18672

Sources: Transport Canada 2011 report; U.S. Department of Transportation bureau of statistics

Compared to plane and train disasters, street vehicle accidents more often involve bystanders. WHO reports that nearly half of the fatalities in road accidents are "pedestrians, cyclists and users of motorized two-wheelers."

The overall road traffic fatality rate is 18 per every 100,000 population, but 80 per cent of worldwide road deaths occur in so-called middle-income countries, particularly in the Africa region. Middle-income countries comprise 72 per cent of the world’s population but only 52 per cent of registered vehicles, according to WHO.

By contrast, the number of automobile deaths in both Canada and the U.S. have fallen to historic lows, at least as of 2010.

Canada's 2,186 traffic fatalities in 2010 represented the lowest number in 46 years in which national records have been kept.

The WHO report says that introducing and enforcing legislation on risk factors such as speeding, drunk driving and the proper application of seatbelts "has been shown to lead to reductions in road traffic injuries."

Even so, the organization warns that automobile accidents are an increasing problem. WHO research says that  road traffic accidents were the eighth highest cause of death worldwide in 2004, representing 2.2 per cent of all deaths (ischaemic heart disease is number one). WHO forecasts that by 2030, road accidents will rise to number five.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.