Death By Numbers

– Statistics are the most dangerous numbers of all

On FireThe sky was pink in the moments before the sun rose over the mountains surrounding Whitehorse. But as is usually the case when I am onboard an airplane, or in most everyday situations for that matter, I was too preoccupied with my imminent, gasoline soaked death to appreciate the natural beauty of this fleeting moment.

They say that flying is statistically the safest mode of transport. But like everything ‘They’ say, this is technically true and yet a total lie at the same time.

Interesting, but how exactly do They do that?

If we take the total number of miles traveled by air per year and divide it by the number of deaths resulting from aviation accidents in said year, we will be left with a very low number. This number will be much lower than the number of deaths per mile for any other common mode of transport, which is good news for anyone with a vested interest in getting people on planes. Therefore, one could say that statistically, you are far more likely to die in a car, bus, train, boat, pedestrian, bicycle or motorcycle accident than in a plane crash, and this lie would be the truth.

But how useful is it to correlate the mileage of such a spectrum of transit mediums? Statistics are about perspective. What kind of perspective do we get by comparing the death rate per mile of say, a 10 hour journey on foot with a 10 hour journey on a plane? The cruise speed of this Boeing 737-500 is 495mph. The cruise speed of my feet is considerably less. Yet the time of exposure to the terrible dangers of moving through space remains the same.

So, what happens when we look at hours instead of miles?

If we take the total number of hours traveled by air per year and divide it by the number of deaths resulting from aviation accidents in said year, we will find a very different set of numbers. Our first point of interest is that every common mode of transport has a minimum of 27 times more deaths per hour than per mile. Time is clearly far more dangerous than distance. Air travel is no longer the safest method of travel, but it remains a strong contender, behind only bus and rail, while driving a car and walking remain far more likely to land you on a slab than flying.

But once again, statistics are perspectives; a comparison of data, so what does this mean in the real world? Since we use air travel in a very different way to other modes of transport such as car or bike travel, perhaps with rail somewhere between, is it really useful to compare them on either the scale of time or the scale of distance?

For example, this flight from Whitehorse to Vancouver is just under 1000 miles and takes 2.5 hours. My daily commute to work is about three miles, which I bike or walk. So this single 2.5 hour flight is the equivalent of me going to work and back for 167 days, or 333 individual journeys. Surely I incur more risk commuting for 167 days than on one 2.5 hour flight?

Conversely, if I bike my three mile commute, it takes me around 20 minutes. This means it would take me 6660 minutes, or 111 hours to bike the same distance between Whitehorse to Vancouver, which of course, I would never do, because that would be insane.

If you were about to smash into the mountains at 500 mph, or your detached retinas were making interesting Jackson Pollocks on the windscreen, or your internal organs had just been rearranged because you didn’t look both ways before crossing, I would imagine that the length of your journey in hours or miles would not be a pressing issue amongst your last thoughts. You wouldn’t be regretting that final mile; you would be regretting that final journey. Boarding that plane/bus/boat/car would be the action that would set in motion the unforeseeable chain of events that lead to your tragic and unsanitary demise.

In human terms, it would be the journey that killed you, not the mile.

So let’s take a look at that.

If we take the total number of journeys made by air per year and divide it by the number of deaths resulting from aviation accidents in said year, we will get a much higher number than our previous calculations. This number will greatly exceed the number of deaths per journey for any other common mode of transport except bicycle and motorcycle. In fact, looking at the numbers from this angle, you would be almost three times more likely to die in a plane than in a car.

Statistically, statistics are the gift that keeps on giving, and, incredibly, when measured in deaths per journey, drunk driving is actually marginally safer than air travel.

And so we have arrived here. That is how They use the truth to lie to you. I expect you are wondering who They are and where They get their numbers from? Well, no one really knows who They are. Even They themselves don’t know; if They did it would ruin the mystique. But one thing is certain: They definitely get their numbers from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

But what does it matter anyway? Statistics mean much less to people who are on fire. Can a number lie? Can a number tell the truth? Are numbers not just designations for values we humans have arbitrarily assigned to them? Besides, I’ve never died in a plane crash, have you? Didn’t think so.

Snow lines the runway and we taxi over to the de-icing pad where masked men blast the wings with bright orange and green liquid. It’s -40°C outside and the sky is the wrong colour, but I’m not worried about this flight; I’m flying Air North. The pilot is also the CEO of the airline and the photogenic cabin crew are all featured in the in-flight magazine. If this bird goes down, questions will be asked; questions that make rich men in suits look bad because their numbers don’t add up, and that would never do.

Numbers don’t kill people, human error does.