Are Planes, Cars, or Trains Safest?


Figuring out the safest way to travel can be a tricky thing, because what feels safest can be misleading. Plane crashes and train derailments, for example, generate big headlines and a corresponding amount of fear among travelers. Car travel, on the other hand, is so common that it can feel very comfortable, but car accidents kill over a million people a year. So which method of travel is actually the safest?

Finding accurate global safety statistics poses a challenge, but in general, airplanes are the safest way to travel. It might feel dangerous to be flying tens of thousands of feet in the air in a metal tube, guided by a pilot you don’t know, with no way of escape if something goes wrong—but the statistics say otherwise. The odds of being in a plane crash are about one in 15,000,000, and one often-quoted MIT statistics professor has said that a person could fly every day for 123,000 years, on average, before a plane crash would kill them.

Trains clock in as the next-safest mode of travel, with the important caveat that the best available data on them covers only developed countries that tend to have good overall safety and well-developed networks. Worldwide, one person dies in a train accident for every 2.5 billion kilometers traveled, and the lifetime odds of dying in a train accident in the United States have been reported as about one in 156,000.

Travel by car, despite being so common, is the least safe way to take to a trip. Globally, 18 people per 100,000 die in traffic accidents. When evaluating the safety of car travel, it’s important to note that the risk changes dramatically based on where you are. Middle-income countries, especially those in Africa, account for four out of five traffic deaths globally, while countries with strong regulations governing drinking and driving, seatbelt usage, and speeding tend to have better traffic safety records.