It’s often said that driving in a car is more dangerous than flying in a plane, yet when an aeroplane crashes or a ship sinks, the nonstop media coverage that follows makes that claim hard to believe.
The sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship this month has once again shone a spotlight on the overall safety of transport. But considering how rare a disaster like this is, especially in comparison to car crashes, it raises the question, which mode of transportation is truly the safest?
Worldwide, there were only 373 fatalities on scheduled commercial passenger flights in 2011, according to the non-profit Aviation Safety Network Database. And according to the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade organization, there were 2.84 billion commercial passengers last year, which would roughly mean your average odds of dying on a commercial flight were roughly one in 7.6 million in 2011.
Over the course of a lifetime, the risk increases. For example, in a 2006 Reason magazine article, the National Safety Council (NSC) reported that in the US the average person’s odds of dying in a plane crash in their lifetime is about one in 5,000.
But contrast those odds to vehicular fatalities. In the same article, the NSC reported that the odds of dying in a car accident in the US over a lifetime was about one in 83. While the number of global vehicle passengers and drivers may not be known, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.2 million people die each year in road traffic accidents (roughly half of which are pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists). So even though we drive more than we fly, with apologies to Jack Kerouac and George Clooney, it seems that there is basis for the claim that on the road is more dangerous than up in the air.
While cruises are more optional than planes and vehicle when travelling, the odds of dying are nearly as slim as flying. As for cruise ships, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an association of cruise lines, said that from 2005 to 2011 only 16 people died in cruise accidents, out of 100 million passengers, putting the odds of death over that period at one in 6.25 million. But the Costa Concordia disaster doubled that fatality number in the early days of 2012. (The death toll from the recent accident has currently reached 16, and there are still at least 16 people still missing.)
However, a new report by Reuters questions the validity of any cruise safety statistics because there is no public database on cruise line accidents. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which provides regulations for cruise ships, does not keep complete records of marine casualties but recorded fewer than 300 incidents since 2000, while the independent website CruiseJunkie, run by sociology professor Ross Klein of Memorial University Newfoundland, has published reports of 644 incidents in the same period.
Whatever the number, the industry can always increase safety. With the investigation into the Costa Concordia disaster, the IMO’s regulations -- which, according to Reuters, are open to interpretation by governments, captains and operators -- are falling under scrutiny. For instance, passengers on the Costa Concordia had not completed a lifeboat safety drill, because ships have 24 hours after setting sail to hold the drill. Now some in the industry are calling for cruise lines to take charge of this protocol and require safety drills before the ships depart.
At the end of the day, you have to get from point A to point B -- be it for business, pleasure or personal obligations. The best you can do is take the proper precautions, sit back (or up, if you’re driving) and relax. Here are some travel safety tips for driving, taking public transit, flying and cruising. If you’re still nervous, this BBC Travel article highlights which airlines had the safest track records in 2011, and you can learn about incidents at sea at the website CruiseJunkie.