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To Drive or To Fly
t the end of a commercial flight, one may occasionally hear the captain announce `Welcome to Podunque and thankyou for flying Birdseed Airlines. The safest part of your trip is over. We wish you a safe onward journey.’ Everyone seems to know this comparison, but where does it come from? From the magic of statistics maybe. After all «you can prove anything with statistics», yet this seems to be a substantive assertion about real risk and safety, rather than a lie, a damn lie, or even worse a statistic. A more reasonable proverb is that one can persuade people of almost anything by misuse of statistical figures - that is, by incorrect statistical reasoning that is hard for a layperson to critique. But believing only `the experts’ also has its downfalls. I advocate believing and constructively criticising not the experts, but the experts’ arguments. If you are presented with the arguments, you can see the reasoning. If you can see the reasoning, you can check whether it’s valid or not. Hard work maybe, but it doesn’t come any better than that. Well, so what are these arguments that flying is safer than driving? I found precisely three, in the journal Risk Analysis in 1990 and 1991, which I shall discuss.
say, whether to drive or to fly on a particular trip. Whether one should fly home from the airport or rather drive........ Making statistical comparisons of risk is itself a risky business (though one risks dissension rather than dissection). For example, let’s take the simple question: how risky is driving? Evans, Frick and Schwing (EvFr90) note that the fatality risk for `highrisk’ drivers is over 1000 times the fatality risk for `low-risk’ drivers. That suggests right off that there may be no one simple figure which will suffice to answer the question. One might be tempted to infer that the one stands less chance of being killed in a car accident on a day-long journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles than the other does when driving around the corner to buy bread. But noone has gathered statistics on, for example, the likelihood of having a fatal accident when tired after so-and-so many hours of driving, or when driving in the early morning while hungry and maybe tired or hung-over from the splendid evening before, or when angry or happy, or when the weather’s gray rather than sunny; let alone on such specificities as driving to Los Angeles versus around the corner (in densely-packed SF, or in neighborly Eureka?) to buy bread. Suppose we seat a high-risk driver next to a low-risk driver on a commercial jet aircraft. Then we may imagine that they have very similar probabilities of losing their lives on that trip: either that aircraft crashes or it doesn’t; passengers seated near to each other have similar (but not identical) exposure to the hazard; and we assume (what cabin crews may tell you is certainly false) that they have similar capabilities to extricate themselves from the hazardous
First of all, what is risk? In this case, the risk seems to be the probability that one could die while engaging in a particular sort of activity (1). Thus one must somehow measure the number of people that died engaged in that activity (while flying or driving), and measure the exposure, that is, the length of time the activity was engaged in (miles, trips, or time) to obtain a rate (deaths per so-many miles, or per somany trips, or per hour of time). One is also trying to make a comparison between two sorts of rates, and one doesn’t want to be comparing apples to oranges. It thus seems sensible to see if such a comparison could help to determine a personal choice,
is barely advised to take a trip around the corner). and follow applicable control laws and signs) and others we can influence. having been at a cabin altitude of some 7. nil! One is tempted to conclude. What is there to stop statistics being gathered on all of the features I have considered? Physically. measurably slows reaction times and impairs judgement.html Page 2 . and. Rather like being drunk without knowing it. And if our low-risk driver smokes regularly.and of course did not then die. we shall see. But although this inference is statistically correct. driving outside of rush-hour. as aviation physiologists know and pilots should know.rvs. and factors that are outside our control. (s)he is certain to feel the effects of the altitude. We can choose to exercise that control. as well as inhibiting one’s ability to detect this impairment. not to get them to fill out questionnaires on their deceased fellow travellers (that task can be left to the ambulancechasers). economically.nor any method that could. But although it might be almost certain that the risk of dying on the aircraft trip is lower than the risk of dying while driving home for the high-risk driver (who. Let’s generalise. I don’t know any method which reflects this degree of control choice in the statistics . in fact. even though they are not entirely within our control (choosing the freeway rather than busy city streets to drive through.rvs. But even that’s not clear. If we choose to do so. I had never had a car accident while moving. Importantly. it is hindered by the difficulties of deriving measurements of some of them (alertness? hypoxic impairment? chosen degree of driving care? all seem to require measurements while the subject is still alive).uni-bielefeld. when I was a 40-year-old. that the safest driving group to be in is the group of drivers that are nominally high-risk but will become low-risk at a later time. by logic. So simply belonging to a nominally high-risk group isn’t enough to enable one to calculate one’s individual chances of dying. if we are talking of fatalities. socially. So it is certain we shall remain statistically ignorant on many of the factors that would enable Printed with joliprint http://www. whose first job is to tend the wounded. But it can be hard to detect this kind of semantic play in statistical argument unless one is practiced. it is certainly hindered by the cost of collecting them. This logically implies (at least in a temporal logic) that I never had a car accident while moving when I was 18 years old. I don’t know any statistics on general air or traffic accidents that could enable the effects of these factors to be determined. When we drive our cars home. we become a statistic. or not.people who will live longer simply aren’t going to die now. which. it is by no means certain that the flying risk for the low-risk driver is lower than that of going home. many of them are still within our control (we stay sober. the risk factors for an accident are mostly out of our control. For example. When we have taken the decision to step on a particular commercial flight. drive at appropriate speeds. That means that the conditional probability that a low-risk driver died while in this high-risk driving group is. To my knowledge the only physiological or psychological impairment for which general statistics have been gathered is that of alcohol consumption. by the priorities of rescue services at the scene of accidents. I fit into the `low-risk’ category. Both may be somewhat anoxic. in a much higher-risk category.uni-bielefeld. who knows what the risks are? But ignorance should not be confused with reality. There are risk factors that are within our control.de To Drive or To Fly 28/09/2011 20:07 situation (they don’t `freak out’. and they’re both physically fit enough to function even during smoke inhalation). correctly. All of the drivers now in the low-risk category were in a much higher-risk category when they were younger .de/publications/Reports/probability. as well as dehydrated. physically it puts the cart before the horse . maybe. staying well away from heavy goods vehicles on wet roads). and certainly not for hypoxia. One might say: if we choose not to exercise control.000 feet for a while. statistics used for comparison can take little account of individual variations. watch the environment carefully. thus.
uni-bielefeld. Bayesian approaches have their own problems -. and interprets chances relative to our state of knowledge.rvs. The Bayesian interpretation in principle recognises the influence of factors we have not remarked. For example. and we know how many of those have died in aircraft crashes. we can assume ceteris paribus that the individual airline and the number of flights doesn’t make that much difference. at least for the period 1975-1986 (BaHi89). which may be contrasted with the Bayesian interpretation. if we knew how many individual passengers had travelled on US aircraft in the last ten years.000 segments. pp41-43. of course. and (DaSo92. for some F given in textbooks on Bayesian theory. theories of) for a comparison Printed with joliprint http://www. can lead us to interpret chance (or `probability’ if you will) as this frequency. Nevertheless.N). entry on Bayesianism) for a more detailed justification of how Bayesian inference works. They have a total of 60 planes and 3 accidents between them. And that is one of the known difficulties with the frequentist view. Cornbread’s fatal frequency over ten years is thus Suppose Birdseed Airlines has twice as many of the same type of aircraft (40 planes). same passenger loading. The ease of gathering data and calculating these past frequencies.see (Gly92. pp374-378.de To Drive or To Fly 28/09/2011 20:07 us to make a suitable judgement of our individual driving fatality risk. Chapter 8) for an explanation of Bayesian inference by a prominent Bayesian sceptic. that is 100. (DaSo92.html Page 3 . For example. X is our a priori probability. The problem is.de/publications/Reports/probability. coupled with a belief or a justification that `all other factors remained more-or-less equal’ (ceteris paribus) and a belief or justification that these past statistics ceteris paribus are a good guide to the future. It has had two 100-seater plane accidents in the last 10 years. same plane usage. What factors have we not measured that do make a difference? The numbers we come up with on a frequentist view cannot be objective properties of the situation. what do we know? One thing we know is the frequencies of certain types of accidents relative to certain features of the environment. but has only had one fatal accident in this time. let us suppose we have suffered a number N of system failures of this type. suppose we have reason to believe that our design and construction processes allow us to build aircraft with a probability of X of suffering a major system failure of a certain type.rvs. no returnees. So Bayesian theory attempts to introduce the epistemic relativity into estimating (and revising) chances that seemed to cause logical trouble with the frequentist view. and conclude we have exactly that chance of dying on a US airline flight in the next ten years. After testing and a certain amount of time in service. Birdseed’s fatal decade-frequency is Suppose my travel agent always books me on either Birdseed or Cornbread. assume these past figures will be a good guide to the future. So Cornbread has flown 5000 segments per aircraft in the last ten years. Bayesian theory gives us a means of calculating the a posteriori probability Y as a function of X and N: Y = F(X. so I can calculate the ten-year rate for my travel agent’s choice as This is a standard critique of the frequentist interpretation of chance. then we can divide one number by the other to calculate the proportion of air travellers in the last ten years that have died in US crashes.uni-bielefeld. each with 100 non-returning passengers. Suppose that Cornbread Airlines has a fleet of 20 100-seater aircraft that each fly 500 route segments per year. entry on probability. and this a priori probability is modified as significant events occur into an a posteriori probability. that individual airline and number of flights do make a big difference. Given that is so. An a priori probability is calculated. and has never carried any individual person on more than one flight. which takes into account the confirmation (or disconfirmation) of the a priori probability by the events. all completely full.
slightly less likely to be killed in 600 miles of rural interstate driving than in regularly scheduled airline trips of the same length. drivers in the latter population. `low-risk’ shall mean drivers of the former population. • M(age of average airline traveller) = 0. and an Isuzu Spectrum 800 lbs lighter) • type of road • rural interstate • all roads. (EvFr90) point out that the segments of the total journey on which there exists a real alternative. To make the comparison between driving and flying.let’s go unashamedly frequentist for the remainder of the essay. alcohol-free.44 • M(BAC>=0. with 5 per cent levels at about 20 and 60. of which 37 per cent were drivers and 71 per cent were cars.html Page 4 .399 • M(travelling on rural interstate) = 0. unbelted male driver on average roads in a lighter car is 930.rvs.492 • M(not wearing seat belt) = 1.5 per cent of the total) and then taper off exponentially (so it seems) to 1 per cent at age 35 and 0. They also point out that the populations dying by car have a different age distribution that those dying by commercial plane. Accurately measured cofactors of driving fatality include age. including frequentist ways. but a skewed and flat median of 5 per cent at age 35.10 • M(BAC=0) = 0.548 • M(18-year-old driver) = 5. In comparison.uni-bielefeld. Enough pontificating . (EvFr90) corrected for the different distribution of population on commercial aircraft flights. a Chevy Nova about 550 lbs lighter. intoxicated.1 per cent (one part in a thousand) • BAC > 0. Printed with joliprint http://www. blood alcohol level. So. For 300-mile trips. and type of road. and concluded that car drivers with a gender and age distribution of airline passengers have roughly a 24 per cent lower mortality rate than the base rate.5 per cent at age sixty. (EvFr90) obtained mortality data (International Classification of Diseases category 841. Thus they use journeys on a rural interstate for comparison. of calculating `chances’: all three reference contain reasonable bibliographies for the avid bookworm.3 billion vehicle miles of travel (presumably estimated). Car-driver deaths as a percentage of the total are extraordinarily high in the 19-20 age group (3.1 per cent • a car mass • 700 pounds heavier • 700 pounds lighter than the average mass of a late-model car on US roads in the late 80’s (Chevy Caprice is about 750 lbs heavier. (EvFr90) calculated rates for all combinations of factors: • age in years • Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of • BAC = 0 • 0 <= BAC <= 0.66 • M(wearing seat belt) = 0. which form roughly a bell curve (OK.occupants of aircraft excluding crew). a Gaussian distribution) with median of about 10 per cent at age 40 for males. and thus a reasonably justified comparison.001) = 7.de/publications/Reports/probability. the driving risk is about half that for flying. that for an 18-year-old. The 1987 data showed 46. Driving fatality risk is measured by (EvFr90) as the driving fatality rate: number of driver fatalities per billion miles driven.rvs. over 1. with about the same levels (4 per cent) as males at 20 and 60.608 • M(0<=BAC<=0. and a skewed bell for females. use of a seat belt.de To Drive or To Fly 28/09/2011 20:07 of the different ways.759 • M(40-year-old driver) = 0.56 by the factors above).3 . is the part of the journey between major metropolitan centers. occurring in 1924.uni-bielefeld.000 times as high! From here on.530 Thus the rate for 40-year-old.8 fatalities per billion miles. belted drivers travelling on rural interstates in a heavier car is thus 0. They make the reasonable assumption that such a journey by road would be undertaken on a rural interstate. and `high-risk’.001) = 2. mass of the car.804 fatalities per billion miles (just multiply 12.386 fatalities.
See (BaMe92) for a discussion about such biases that enter into public perception of risk after a major accident and their commercial effects. and 0.]. for most airlines a single accident could appear severely to damage an airline’s reputation without necessarily being related to levels of safety..5 miles.e. since it could be presumed that the overall management of a particular airline would have an effect on the overall safety record of the airline. acknowledged but not discussed.Martinair). and highrisk drivers [. (Bar91) points out a further source of bias. average. However. (BaHi89) analysed airline fatality data from 1977-86 and argued • that it made sense to calculate figures on a per-airline basis. however.de/publications/Reports/probability. • that the rates per trip/flight segment/`cycle’ (i. The indifference distances for a [single flight segment] and for low-risk. For such a situation. In simple terms.. Martinair (Holland) and Lauda Air (Austria) show up particularly badly on such measures because of a Martinair DC-10 accident on landing at Faro in the 80’s. no probably cause was found.] are 303 miles. There are at least three sources of bias that arguably should be taken into account. and 1.in Thailand. Details may be found in (Comp. car travel provides a lower fatality risk than air travel for trips in the distance range for which car and air travel are likely to be competing modes. [Suppose now that] only a three-segment flight is available.. Subsequent tests found. 111 miles for an average driver. a low-risk driver is considering a 602-mile trip (602 miles being the indifference distance obtained by [(EvFr90)] for a low-risk driver). the present calculations indicate that for such a situation the risk of driving is about twice the risk of flying. it is safer to fly than to drive if the distance is more than 909 miles for a low-risk driver.rvs. Martinair performed a thorough `reengineering’ of their operations (Anon97) and recently a Martinair crew performed a superb job of recovering a landing on a wet runway in Boston in 1996 during which they unexpectedly lost much of their braking power (Comp. and the loss of a Lauda Air B767 .uni-bielefeld. In the third example..uni-bielefeld. for this set of drivers. Consequently. for a lowrisk driver it is safer to fly nonstop than to drive if the road distance is more than 303 miles [. while for some airlines seen to be unusually dangerous (no US airlines fit into this category) it would certainly be in the interests of passengers to make them aware of this situation.. Airlines and some regulators believe that..].rvs. However.5 miles for a high risk [sic] driver.. that there were some situations on a high-time engine in which certain oil seals could deteriorate and impede the correct functioning of a hydraulic valve in the interlock system.to date still the only B767 loss . in the figures of (EvFr90): What about the per-airline figures? There is currently controversy over a decision by an association advocating the interests of commercial airline passengers to publicise safety data broken down by airline. however. It could be legitimately questioned whether this accident yields appropriate grounds for ranking Lauda Air amongst some notorious safety transgres- Printed with joliprint http://www.LaudaAir). 37 miles. I have flown Martinair and liked what I saw of their professionalism. There are some purely statistical biases that could also lead to a different risk assessment than seems reasonable. single takeoff-cruise-landing segment) were in effect independent of the length of the flight segment. an apparently unrevoverable fault which is supposed to be completely prevented by a hydro-mechanical interlock.html Page 5 . respectively [. These figures are not final. As for Lauda Air.de To Drive or To Fly 28/09/2011 20:07 Hence. one unlucky accident can ruin your whole business. although the DFD data were consistent with an in-flight deployment of actual thrust-reverse. For example. thus allowing actual deployment of reverse thrust.
do not always appear to yield plausible conclusions. • the introduction of engines of unprecedented power and complexity. In any case. regale her with tales from Evans.de To Drive or To Fly 28/09/2011 20:07 sors in developing or ex-Soviet-Union countries.when the risk being measured is dependent on very rare events such as commercial airplane accidents. The maintainer has been required to close its Miami and Orlando operations .some have suggested that this is shutting the door after the horse has bolted. and the Miami branch of the FAA responsible for oversight have all been discussed in preliminary hearings as possibly contributing to this dangerous situation. Back Printed with joliprint http://www. Frick. for which the probable cause is expected to be determined as a cargo-hold fire caused by oxygen cylinders that had not been properly prepared for transportation and contained residual combustibles which caught fire. • the use of fly-by-wire designs in aircraft passenger service. just remember that it’s demonstrably safer to take United to the grocery store if you’re an inebriated teenager with a tiny car.rvs. for example (Lev95. We await the NTSB report on the accident in mid-to-late 1997.html Page 6 . • the effects of concerted international action against terrorist acts against airlines and their passengers (unquestionably positive results!). that when one buries oneself in engineering. leading according to some to dangerous practices becoming routine (2). which in this case resulted in the worst possible outcome.rvs. the maintenance organisation which prepared the cylinders. Weintraub and Flannagan. and by airline deregulation which many worried had led to cost-cutting at the expense of safety measures. and was permitted to recommence operations at a severely reduced level. Barnett. Schwing. on a frequentist interpretation. The carrier was required to close its passenger operations and rework its management. the definitions of risk can become complicated and abstract.uni-bielefeld. by the rebuilding of air-traffic control services after the dismissal in 1981 of many of the most qualified staff by the Reagan administration in response to a strike over working conditions. • the vast increase in air travel without corresponding increase in regulatory oversight. Back (2): In the wake of the Valujet DC-9 crash into the Florida Everglades in May 1996. • the medium. Chapter 9.uni-bielefeld. Finally. and then remind her you’re taking the bus home! (1): I should point out. when assessing risks. It has recently merged with another small airline and will continue these operations under a new name. those who use frequentist interpretations of statistics often find that comparisons yield much starker results than seems reasonably to be the case. one must always be aware of the changing environment in which evidence is gathered. And next time the captain reminds you how safe air travel is compared with using the car. let the figures be as they may.de/publications/Reports/probability. The airline management. • the vast increase in air travel without corresponding increase in facilities . Terminology) . simple accident rates. leading to higher-density use of airspace around major airports. though. (BaHi89) note that the period in which they analysed the statistics (late 70’s to late 80’s) was characterised by considerably increased terrorist activity targeting US carriers. Sivak.and longer-term effects of airline deregulation. (BaHi89) were able to show that Those thinking about the changed environment for the period 1986-1996 might reflect upon • the aging of aircraft incorporating sophisticated avionics. As we have seen. This particular statistical `bias towards rare events’ can thus be misleading .
Daniel J.uni-bielefeld. 1989.de To Drive or To Fly 28/09/2011 20:07 (Bar90): Arnold Barnett. 1992.de/publications/Reports/probability. Back (Lev95): Nancy G. 1959-1995. 1996. Worldwide Operations. Nonstop Flying Is Safer Than Driving. Back (DaSo92): Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa. Is It Safer to Fly or Drive?. Back (EvFr90): Leonard Evans. 1990. 1990. Risk Analysis 11(1):145-148. The Market Response to the Sioux City DC-10 Crash. Safeware: System Safety and Computers. Addison-Wesley. Micheal C. 1995.. Management Science 35:1-21.html Page 7 . Back (BaHi89): Arnold Barnett and Mary K. Airline Safety: The Last Decade. Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Aircraft Accidents. Back (SiWe91): Michael Sivak. Frick and Richard C. Chance: New Directions for Statistics and Computing 3:8-12. John Menighetti and Matthew Prete. Author. 1991. A Companion to Epistomology (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy Series).uni-bielefeld. Higgins. Back Printed with joliprint http://www. Blackwell.rvs. Back (Boe96): Boeing Commercial Airplane Group. Air Safety: End of the Golden Age?. Weintraub and Michael Flannagan.rvs. Leveson. eds. Risk Analysis 12(1):45-52. Back (BaMe92): Arnold Barnett. Risk Analysis 10(2):239-246. Schwing. 1992.
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