Here's Why Flying Is the Safest Mode of Transportation

Don't let fear of flying keep you from booking a trip abroad.

Cars on the highway, plane on the runway, subway at the station
Photo: Getty Images/Tetra images RF; Getty Images/iStockphoto (2)

Catastrophic events in air travel, like the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (which disappeared along with its 239 passengers and crew) may explain why 1 in 3 Americans either feel anxious or scared to fly.

Flight phobics are sometimes so afraid of air travel, they'll even find alternative routes to their chosen destinations. But is it really safer to drive or to take a boat than it is to fly?

Spoiler alert: it's not.

Every year, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) shares statistics on the number of fatalities by mode of transportation. To compare the relative safety of each mode, we looked at the most recent set of data published by the Bureau of Transportation.

Safety on the Highway

Driving on the highway is, statistically speaking, the most dangerous way to travel. Drivers have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a motor vehicle crash, and a 1 in 654 chance of dying as a car occupant. Out of the 35,092 highway fatalities in 2015, 12,628 were passenger car occupants, 9,813 were occupants in small trucks (e.g. pickups, vans, utility vehicles), and 4,976 were motorcyclists.

Safety on the Railroad

In 2015, 749 people were killed in railroad accidents. Sixty percent of these accidents were a result of trespassing, so train travel is mostly safe for those who take a train to work or use Amtrak to venture from one part of the country to the next.

Safety in the Water

Traveling by boat also comes with little risk. There were 692 boating fatalities in 2015; however, 90 percent of these cases were caused by recreational boating, and were not passenger-related.

Safety in the Air

Since you only have a 1 in 9,821 chance of dying from an air and space transport incident, flying is actually one of the safest forms of transportation. The DOT and the National Transportation Safety Board only have preliminary statistics for 2015, but for 2014, they reported 444 aviation-related deaths. To put that in perspective, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics recorded some 848.1 million airplane passengers on flights to and from the U.S. that same year.

Safety on Public Transportation

If it's available to you, public transportation is the safest option out there. The DOT reported only 30 passenger-related deaths in 2015.

So why are people more afraid of flying?

Chalk it up to risk perception. Devastating events such as plane crashes grab our attention, induce fear, and tend to stick in our minds, giving us the false impression that these events are common occurrences no matter how infrequently they happen.

Research also shows that people generally feel more anxious when facing an uncontrollable or involuntary threat, as opposed to one is under their perceived control. Despite the fact that speeding accounted for 9,557 deaths in 2015, drivers may feel less anxious behind the wheel because they believe they are in complete control of their safety.

Air travelers, on the other hand, must cede that power to flight crew, and cannot choose how unforeseeable threats and dangers are dealt with.

If you have a fear of flying, you can combat that fear by equipping yourself with knowledge (like how relatively safe it is) and with a variety of techniques ahead of your next flight.

Choose a seat at the front of a plane for a less bumpy ride, or face that fear head on with a flying lesson. BritishAirways, for example, offers classes that aim to reduce anxiety by teaching you how planes stay up in the air.

Another option is to download the SkyGuru app to know exactly what's happening (and what to expect) on your flight in real time. By learning how safe it is to actually fly, you can spend your next flight thinking less about the plane and more about the trip.

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