Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

The Germanwings Crash: Our Misguided Approach to Accidents and Safety

29 March 2015 by Jim

First off, the crash is of course a horrible event, and it’s a pity that 150 people died in it. It’s also tragic that 149 people died because of one apparently suicidal copilot although his motivations are not yet entirely understood and probably never will be. But the significance of this accident is hugely overblown. It makes people feel unsafe when they should not, because flying is safer now than it has ever been, and it is becoming ever safer due to technological improvements.
Flying is very safe

Here’s a chart of the commercial flight accident casualties by year between 1942 and 2014. As you can see, since the 1970s, casualties have fallen steadily [1].
20150328 Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 17.58.47
However, global air travel has not fallen, far from it. From 1970 to 2010, air travel, measured in kilometres travelled by passengers in commercial airplanes, has risen almost tenfold [2].
20150328 Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 18.09.58
To get a more intuitive understanding, let’s look at how many times I’d have to fly from New York to Paris (about 5800 km) until my own death in a plane would become statistically likely.
20150328 Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 18.23.09
So we are currently at around 1.2 million one-way 8 hour flights from Paris to New York. I would have to spend about 555 years worth of non-stop flying until I would be likely to die from a plane crash. Now that sounds less scary, doesn’t it? I didn’t plan on logging 555 years of flying in my lifetime anyway.
…but driving is not as safe at all

 

So it doesn’t make sense to worry about the safety of flying. It does, however, make sense to worry about the safety of driving: every 2 weeks, 150 people die due to traffic-related accidents in Germany. But we don’t care about those or think they are worth being upset about. A Germanwings crash will in all likelihood not happen again in the next 2 weeks, and if it did that would not change anything. But another 150 people will certainly die because of cars in Germany alone. So what should I really be worried about? Car-related deaths or flight-related deaths? Society should be worried about cars. I should be worried about neither, I think.

 

It’s the job of governments to regulate traffic both in the air and on the ground, and the job of companies, scientists and engineers to make traffic safer. As the statistics above show, they are doing a wonderful job so far. So we should trust them to continue to do just that in the future as well.

 

We should celebrate the millions of lives saved that no one knows about.

 

If we were completely statistically fair, we would actually congratulate society as a whole for all the lives saved by technological advances instead of running around scared after a type of accident that, if anything, is extraordinary due to its increasing rarity. But the kind of heroism that is improving safety in airplanes by doing your day-to-day work as a government flight safety official or an airplane engineer is not spectacular enough to warrant big articles or much talking about, unfortunately. If some design flaw in a new car model caused 200 casualties, we’re upset. But if a design change in a new car model saves the lives of 200 people, which we can see by looking at a statistical decline in casualties, nobody congratulates the engineers who did this for their work.

 

Getting upset about an airplane crash that kills 150 people is therefore, in my opinion, inappropriate for the press and politicians who are unaffected by it, because it shows that we as a society do not care about most deaths. We just care about the ones that are spectacular to see and read about on the first page of a newspaper, and especially those that happen close to us, for example in a German airplane, because we feel that we could have died in that crash. That is pretty selfish.

 

A tragedy should not be used to promote yourself.

 

I find it reprehensible that the press and officials make grandiose statements to rationalise something that cannot be rationalised, as if their outrage could prevent accidents from happening, as if a new law could prevent all future problems. If a simple law is enough to make all accidents go away, as some politicians suggest every time an accident happens, then we should all ask: ‘Why didn’t you make this a law a month earlier, if it’s so easy to do?’ And if it’s not as easy to do (which it isn’t) then officials should have the honesty of telling the public that accidents like those happen and are to be expected to happen every once in a while.

 

Because they do. If global travel continues to increase in the way it has so far (which means that, yay, more people can afford to travel!), accidents like these are bound to happen, which sucks, but is far from a national or global tragedy. After all, we manage just fine with the 150 people who are killed by cars every two weeks, don’t we?

 

If we actually care, there is something we can do.

 

If we really care about saving lives, we should spend more time thinking about preventable deaths, like those caused by wars and diseases, which number in the hundreds of thousands, and ways to reduce their numbers. And the press should educate people about the actual statistics of plane crashes. The 9/11 catastrophe causes about 3000 immediate deaths. Another 1500 people died in the following months due to an increase in car-related deaths because they were scared to fly. So the casualties of 9/11 were actually 50% higher because of a public misunderstanding of statistics. The initial 3000 deaths were not preventable. And the 150 of the Germanwings crash were not preventable either. But the following deaths due to increased usage of cars are preventable. So let’s educate people about this and help to save lives where we can.

 

If we as a society reduced the amount of drunk driving we regularly do, or used a bike or our feet a bit more often on short routes, 150 human lives could easily be saved by slightly reducing the number of car-related deaths over the remainder of this year. That is a statistic we actually can do something about. But not driving is of course too much of a hassle, and it’s much easier to be outraged about an airplane crash than to use the car a little less often…

 

So, to make a difference, let’s use cars less often. And let’s not worry irrationally about flying, which is safer than the cars that most of us use every day.

 

 – References and notes –
1. according to the Aviation Safety Network (http://aviation-safety.net/statistics/period/stats.php?cat=A1)
2. according to the Economist, using data from ICAO and Airbus

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