August 19, 2007
Back Of Airplane Safest Place In Accidents

If rich people are so smart why do they sit in the front? Those first class seats in the front are relatively dangerous. To maximize your chance of survival sit it in the back.

The funny thing about all those expert opinions: They're not really based on hard data about actual airline accidents. A look at real-world crash stats, however, suggests that the farther back you sit, the better your odds of survival. Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front.

That's the conclusion of an exclusive Popular Mechanics study that examined every commercial jet crash in the United States, since 1971, that had both fatalities and survivors. The raw data from these 20 accidents has been languishing for decades in National Transportation Safety Board files, waiting to be analyzed by anyone curious enough to look and willing to do the statistical drudgework.

Want to cut your transportation death rates much further? Don't travel. This applies to both short and long trips and it also saves time. Schedule trip activities to do them in batches so that you make few trips. Take jobs closer to home or move closer to your job. Telecommute. Use teleconferencing and email rather than road trips.

On the other hand, jet air travel is very safe as compared to car travel for equal distances. As Popular Mechanics points out, there's only been 1 fatal jet crash in the United States in the last 5 years. Car travel is most hazardous with over an order of magnitude more deaths per distance traveled than trains or planes. Curiously, trains and planes have almost the same rate of passenger deaths per distance traveled.

Car travel dangers are more controllable by individuals though. You can drive a safer car as measured by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety car ratings or the US government's car safety ratings. You can also avoid driving drunk or tired, avoid heavy traffic, don't speed, avoid driving in rain and snow, and use other safe driving techniques.

Another point about air travel: Take fewer hops and fly in jets. Take-offs and landings are where most accidents happen. The new Boeing Dreamliner jet that allows airlines to offer more direct flies that avoid hubs will reduce the number of times you have to take-off and land on a trip. Well, search on flights that take fewer hops.

The Popular Mechanics article above comes from a special issue on natural disaster survival. One complaint about their special issue: They emphasize after-disaster survival. For disasters that can happen to you at home the emphasis should be on locating and building a home in such a way that it can survive most disasters. No need to start camping if your roof doesn't fly off and your house doesn't flood or burn down. However, their articles have lots of useful tips.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 August 19 01:01 PM  Dangers Transportation

Carl Shulman said at August 19, 2007 1:27 PM:

It would be interesting to compare cars in general vs taxis and buses to isolate the impact of professional drivers.

OneEyedMan said at August 19, 2007 2:04 PM:

"If rich people are so smart why do they sit in the front?"
Because first and business class are the first on and the first off of planes. In addition to the time saved by letting them be the first off, putting the fancy seats in the front forces everyone to see how much nicer they are then the cheaper seats. Since the risk of crash is very small it doesn't take much time saved to justify it over the additional risk of locating them in the front.

Sam said at August 19, 2007 4:01 PM:

Another reason why first and business class seats are in the front of planes is that both noise levels and turbulence tend to be less severe the further forward you are. The last rows of a jet are by far the noisiest.

rsilvetz said at August 19, 2007 4:22 PM:

Careful when comparing these numbers!

Per-mile-travelled is chimera. Only unitary events count.

If a million people travel Buffalo-NY, Buffalo-PekingChina, Buffalo-ToTheMoon, Buffalo-ToMars, and only 1 person dies in each case, the simple truth is that the situations are identically safe regardless of mileage travelled. This is because the unitary events that matter are departures, arrivals, crashes, death. Not miles travelled.

Deaths Per-mile-travelled is a capability not safety. In other words, I can transport you this distance at this level of safety. It's a different metric and it means something much different than safety.

This difference is subtle but important.

My run of the stats back in the day puts your odds of dying on a single flight at about 1 in 2 million. In the wake of 9/11 and the impending arrival of the super-jumbo jet, aviation has made a concerted effort to improve safety. The suggestions I have seen put that number at 1 in 6 million to 1 in 10 million or about 4to5-fold improvement. This safety improvement suggests that in Western Civ we should see jets go down catastrophically only once every couple years.

Brett Bellmore said at August 19, 2007 5:47 PM:

Actually, the deaths per mile traveled is very important, if you have a trip of a pre-determined distance to plan, and are trying to decide how you're going to travel. The only question here is how deaths per mile traveled varies according to distance for cars; Just as planes are most dangerous while taking off and landing, cars are most dangerous while traveling surface streets, and become much safer on limited access highways, where all the cars are going the same direction.

rsilvetz said at August 20, 2007 7:46 AM:

Why unitary events are statistics and everything else metrics which may or may not mean anything.

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