Safety of air vs road travel


I spend a lot of my time traveling so I am in a cab a lot and in many plane rides every month. In talking to people I always sense a greater worry about air travel than about road travel and I have never been able to understand this completely as the data just does not support it. As someone once said: “the most dangerous part of air travel is the ride to the airport”!

In India this is even more true. There are on average 300 deaths on the road everyday, yes EVERY day, and while I don’t have the exact stats my guess is that that is the total number annually for air travel. And then there is a straight line from fatalities to serious and non-serious injuries. On a recent plane ride I was flying in a small ATR and my carry-on bag did not fit in the overhead. I checked it in for pick up as soon as I got off. After getting off I veered too close to the fuselage to pick up my bag and immediately someone stopped me and brought the bag to me. This level of alertness about safety is a stark contrast to what happens on the road (see this video by the Bangalore traffic police) and yet most people don’t think that much about road safety as they do about safety of flying. Why is that? Why is that a single plane accident attracts a lot of media coverage but we are practically numb to the madness that happens on the roads everyday?

I don’t know if there has been any study done and I am no psychologist, but I think it has a lot to do with the feeling of being in direct control on the road. The thought could be that “I can drive carefully” or “I will be careful crossing the road” etc. But for air travel, one has to rely on the system to just work. From the pilot to the mechanic who inspected the plane to the manufacturer who puts in 6-7 layers of redundancy each one has to do their job well for every single flight to be safe. The industry has done fabulously well in achieving a high safety standard, but the complexity of pulling it off each and every time I think causes more worry in the mind of an average passenger.

Anyone here has a theory on why this is the case and/or can provide links to any research done behind this psychology?


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