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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Travel and Safety

Every day my patients tell me of loved ones they see infrequently, due to serious concerns over travel safety. It’s true that all modes of transportation render us powerless to some degree. Just how safe is it to travel?

Let’s start with motorcycles. They are fun to ride, can be economical, and afford the rider a great sense of independence and freedom. On the other hand, even with safety gear, the rider is not well protected. When a motorcycle is involved in a collision with another vehicle, the motorcyclist invariably receives more serious injuries.

In fact, the ratio of motorcyclist fatalities to those in the other vehicle is a whopping 70:1. Motorcycles account for only 1% of road traffic, but 20% of road fatalities. Bottom line? 123 deaths per billion miles traveled.

Walking is good for us for so many reasons. Statistics show 41 deaths per billion miles traveled. These deaths are largely due to encounters with cars.

We hear about road rage against bicyclists. However, the data shows that riding a bike is safer than walking, at 35 deaths per billion miles traveled. As with walking, almost all bicyclist fatalities involve automobiles.

Ferries come in at 20 deaths per billion miles traveled, and represent the most dangerous mode of public transportation.

Cars represent the most common form of transportation. There are just four deaths per billion miles travelled. Because private individuals operate the vast majority of cars, this risk is highly dependent on personal behavior. Unlike commercial vehicles, where passenger health is in the hands of a “trained professional,” the risk to a car’s driver or passenger varies considerably, depending on the driver’s gender, age, mood, distractions, alcohol and drug consumption, and the type of road.

Men are three times more likely to die in a car accident than women, and those between 18 and 29 are at a 50% to 90% greater risk. Seat-belt use is critical: half of vehicle occupants who die in automobiles and light trucks are not wearing seat belts (or using child safety seats). Alcohol plays a role in approximately a third of all highway fatalities.

Buses are extremely safe, coming in at 0.5 deaths per billion miles traveled. Scheduled and charter service accounted for 44% of these fatalities, with the balance occurring in school buses (23%), urban transit (11%) and a variety of private shuttles, church buses and others (22%).

Travel by airplane also comes in at only 0.5 deaths per billion miles traveled. There is a 1 in 45 million chance of dying on an airplane. Note that the vast majority of aviation fatalities (85%) involved private aircraft.

Excluding acts of suicide and terrorism, commercial aviation is tied with buses as the safest mode of travel in the United States. For every billion miles traveled by air, we would be more likely to be attacked by a shark, struck by lightening, be a billionaire, or become President of the United States.

Can you guess the safest mode of transportation? There are 0.2 deaths per billion miles traveled on trains. Mainline railroads average 876 deaths a year. The majority of deaths involve people and vehicles not at grade crossings, and a significant portion of those deaths may be suicides.

Let’s end with this: travel by space shuttle! There have been 530 people who have ever been on a space shuttle. As a result of the Challenger and Columbia explosions, there have been 18 deaths. So, at seven deaths per billion miles traveled, a space shuttle does come in as more dangerous than driving a car.

My message? Live your life and use common sense, and perhaps avoid – for now – planning your next trip on a space shuttle.

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