Why We Don’t Care About Fatal Accidents


At last week’s SAFE symposium, John King banged a drum I’ve heard him bang before. He points out that in general aviation, we continue to promulgate the idea that flying a GA airplane is “safe.” The oft-used comparison is that the drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of the trip. While that’s true for an airline trip, it’s most definitely not true when GA is part of the equation. I’ll get to the numbers in a minute.But first, when King makes this argument-which I happen to agree with and have made many times in the publications I’ve edited-the reaction is curious. It’s basically no reaction. The eyes glaze over because most people don’t want to confront the nature of risk or to wrap their heads around the statistical measures. It’s not denial, I don’t think, but just utter disinterest. We suffer between 250 and 300 fatal aviation accidents a year (400 to 600 deaths) and few care enough to do anything meaningful about it, other than basic lip service.Why is this? I have a theory, but first the numbers. The GA fatal rate is 1.2/100,000 hours, although I think it’s actually higher because the hours-flown estimate is a dodgy value. I think we fly fewer hours than the estimate. Standing alone, the number is hard to parse without comparing it to something else. So let’s compare it to another activity in which a minimally trained and qualified operator is using a vehicle at high speeds. And that would be driving-specifically driving a car which is involved in a single-car, fatal accident. That compares favorably to GA because there aren’t that many mid-air collisions so it’s as close to apples-to-apples as I can get. (Motorcycles might be better, but the data isn’t as good.)The numbers are grim. On a per-registration basis, general aviation suffers 141 fatals per 100,000 registered vehicles compared to 7.5/100,000 for single-car fatal crashes. The per-hour rate tracks a worse ratio. For light GA aircraft, the fatal rate is 1.2/100,000 hours compared to .028/100,000 for single-car crashes, a 43-fold difference.* If all fatal traffic accidents are considered, the rate is .05/100,000 hours, a 24-fold difference. The risk Delta between driving to the airport for an airline trip is five times worse for the car-not nearly as bad as it used to be.If a GA trip is involved, the fatal risk is 240 times greater than the airline and nearly 25 times worse than cars if all traffic fatals are considered. If the automobile fatal accident rate were equivalent to GA’s fatal rate, we would kill more than 800,000 people a year and your car insurance would cost $25,000. As a society, we would never accept that as a driving risk, but we’re blas about it in aviation. Why?Several reasons, I think. The big one is that as participants, we just don’t care. Cynical, I know, but still true, I believe. Five hundred people dead at the bottom of smoking airplane craters isn’t the societal problem that 5000 killed by drunk drivers is. People just assume-including those of us in the industry-that airplanes are dangerous and, well, everyone knows that and accepts the risk. Even though we occasionally use the phony drive-to-the-airport logic King was talking about, we don’t really believe it. That’s the “big lie” he refers to and it’s mostly told to people outside the industry.The second aspect of the don’t-care response is that as an industry, we’re willing to give pilots only enough training to get them relatively competent, but not require them to do any serious recurrency because that costs money and time and will thin the ranks and shrink the industry. So we strike a balance between what we’re willing to require for training, how many dead bodies we can tolerate and how much money we want to continue to trickle into the industry from people who haven’t been driven off by having to do a $250 flight review. It’s harsh calculus, but, as I said in another blog, perhaps it’s the cost of doing business.Also, most of us believe-correctly, I think-that some people will crash no matter how much you train them. We let these people buy and fly airplanes, too, because we want their money to keep the industry afloat and it goes against the basic American grain to deny people the right to do whatever they want, regardless of consequences.I’m not necessarily making a moral judgment on any of this because I support SAFE’s efforts. I am merely pointing out that the group-and the FAA-are pushing against strong inertia to nudge that 1.2/100,000 downward. That’s part of the cultural change we’ve been discussing, but nothing at all will change unless we no longer accept the stasis. If 275 fatal crashes a year are viewed by industry participants-that’s you and me-as “not that bad,” that’s exactly what we’ll continue to have.*Notes on methodology: 275 fatal accidents a year are assumed. There are about 198,000 GA airplanes registered in the U.S., less jets and helicopters. In 2008, there were about 31,000 fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. of which 60 percent or 18,600 were single-vehicle crashes. (This may include pedestrian figures, but for this rough study, it doesn’t matter much.) The NHTSA estimates there are about 248 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S., which average 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year. At an aggregate speed of 45 miles per hour-generous-that’s 266 hours of driving a year.Click here for a video on the Lindsay, Oklahoma accident.Click here for a podcast with Rich Stowell and John King on the same accident.