Rules of the Road

If the U.S. airlines can do it, why can’t we reach zero fatalities on the highways?

Passengers disembark from an Alaska Airlines plane arriving from Las Vegas at Bellingham International Airport in February 2015. In 2015, the United States airline industry flew 7.6 billion miles with no fatalities.
Passengers disembark from an Alaska Airlines plane arriving from Las Vegas at Bellingham International Airport in February 2015. In 2015, the United States airline industry flew 7.6 billion miles with no fatalities.

Question: I’ve read that the fatality rate per mile traveled on a commercial plane is much lower than it is when traveling by car. Are there things we could learn from the airlines on how to make our roads safer?

Answer: Numerous resources compare commercial airline safety with driving, and every one of them reaches the same conclusion you state in your question: Commercial flight is safe. Really safe.

In the last seven years, no one has died on a U.S.-certificated scheduled commercial airline.

In 1924, at the dawn of the commercial flight era, airline fatalities were at one death for every 13,500 miles traveled (or 7,407 deaths per 100 million miles). In 1960, commercial airlines had a fatality rate of 44 deaths per 100 million miles. In 2015, United States airlines flew 7.6 billion miles with a total of – you guessed it – no fatalities.

Meanwhile, traffic deaths have not seen such dramatic declines, and in the past two years actually have increased.

I’ll admit commercial flights versus driving a personal vehicle isn’t an equivalent comparison, but there are a few similarities. Both flying and driving started with minimal restrictions; laws and rules were established once people saw the deadly consequences caused by a lack of standards. Both became safer as manufacturers were held to higher standards with engineering and safety equipment, and as pilots and drivers were held to bettertraining.

But why did commercial airlines reach the point of practically zero deaths, while on public highways more than 35,000 people died last year?

To get some clues, I looked into the history of aviation safety.

The government’s original role in aviation safety wasn’t as a regulator, but as an airline operator. In the late teens and 1920s government-owned planes, flown by government-employed pilots, delivered the U.S. mail. The comparatively high standards for training and maintenance resulted in a safety record 58 times better than other commercial flights.

As the airline industry grew, the federal government took on the role of regulator, working with airlines to improve safety. Both airlines and the government knew that for commercial flight to be successful, the public had to trust that it would be safe.

Over 100 years, flying became progressively safer. Many improvements to commercial airline safety resulted from “tombstone engineering”: figuring out what went wrong in a disaster and changing the rules or designs to prevent it in the future.

Changes to traffic law, vehicle design and road engineering have progressed similarly.

If both flight and driving started out with poor safety records, and both made changes to improve safety, I’ll ask again: Why did commercial flight in the United States become a nearly zero-risk mode of transportation, while driving has stagnated at around 35,000 deaths per year?

One reason may be that we’re making the wrong comparison.

Individual drivers are regulated more at the level of private pilots, while commercial flight might better be compared to trains or buses. Commercial transportation, whether in the air or on the ground, is held to a higher standard than private transportation, and apparently, that affects fatality rates.

The fatality rate for private flight is, depending on which study you read, somewhat more or a bit less than driving in a car. Either way, it’s far riskier than getting on a commercial plane.

Like driving, fatalities from general aviation (non-commercial flight) are mostly caused by human error.

Within the general aviation community there is a movement toward better training, more frequent proficiency checks and better safety systems for pilots. Efforts like these, applied to drivers, might make our roads safer.

Experts in the airline industry attribute the higher commercial pilot standards to much of the success in commercial flight safety.

Ultimately, fatality rates change based on what we’re willing to accept.

Are we as drivers willing to require more training to be issued a driver’s license? How about a periodic test to make sure we still know the rules of the road? That seems reasonable to me.

Currently, as long as you can pass a vision test and pay $45, you’re good for five more years. You could drive for 70 years or more and never have to demonstrate any driving proficiency once the initial license was issued.

Think about how driving has changed over the last decades and tell me that doesn’t seem a little crazy.

Commercial transportation has established higher standards and training for pilots and drivers, resulting in significantly fewer fatalities. Are we willing to do that on an individual level?

Until the robot cars take over, that’s what it’s going to take to move the needle on traffic fatalities.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.