08/01/2013 05:32 EDT | Updated 10/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Air, rail and road safety by the numbers

There have been a string of dramatic transportation disasters lately. This past month alone saw the catastrophic rail disaster at Lac-Megantic, Que., as well as the commuter train derailment in Spain that killed 79 people, a bus accident in Italy that killed 38 and a crash landing at San Francisco airport that killed three.

While the month of July was perhaps unusual for the number of high-profile transportation calamities, the dramatic nature of these incidents has raised questions about the general safety of these modes of transit.

It's difficult to get comprehensive figures on the relative safety of any given mode of transportation since there are discrepancies from country to country in the way such information is documented, and also from year to year in base figures, like the amount of kilometres travelled.

But here is a look at what is known about the safety records of the most ubiquitous means of transportation.


On July 6, people were riveted by the dramatic footage of the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, en route from Inchon, South Korea. But in February, the New York Times reported that 2012 was the safest year for air travel since 1945.

The Aviation Safety Network, which gathers statistics on accidents, reported 23 deadly accidents and 475 fatalities worldwide in 2012. As a point of comparison, there were 42 crashes and 1,147 deaths in 2000.

Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at M.I.T., has been widely quoted as saying a person could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before dying in a plane crash.

Why has air travel become safer? The structural and mechanical parts of planes have become more reliable while navigation systems have become more sophisticated, thus mitigating the chance of collisions due to poor visibility.


The statistics on worldwide rail travel aren’t consistent, and the majority of the available data covers Europe.

The Economist reported that, in 2011, 1,239 people were killed in over 2,300 railway accidents in the European Union.

According to the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, the worldwide fatality rate for trains is 0.4 for every one billion passenger kilometres. The report noted that this figure is "considered representative of developed countries with good road safety records."

Based on data from the National Safety Council, the New York Times calculated that the lifetime risk of an American dying in a train crash was one in 156,169.


Of all the modes of transport, car travel is still the most treacherous. According to the 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety, produced by the World Health Organization, about 1.24 million people die on roads worldwide every year.

Compared to plane and train disasters, street vehicle accidents more often involve bystanders. WHO reports that nearly half of the fatalities in road accidents are "pedestrians, cyclists and users of motorized two-wheelers."

The overall road traffic fatality rate is 18 per every 100,000 population, but 80 per cent of worldwide road deaths occur in so-called middle-income countries, particularly in the Africa region. Middle-income countries comprise 72 per cent of the world’s population but only 52 per cent of registered vehicles, according to WHO.

By contrast, the number of automobile deaths in both Canada and the U.S. have fallen to historic lows, at least as of 2010.

Canada's 2,186 traffic fatalities in 2010 represented the lowest number in 46 years in which national records have been kept.

The WHO report says that introducing and enforcing legislation on risk factors such as speeding, drunk driving and the proper application of seatbelts "has been shown to lead to reductions in road traffic injuries."

Even so, the organization warns that automobile accidents are an increasing problem. WHO research says that road traffic accidents were the eighth highest cause of death worldwide in 2004, representing 2.2 per cent of all deaths (ischaemic heart disease is number one). WHO forecasts that by 2030, road accidents will rise to number five.


There aren’t many statistics available that separate bus accidents from general road accidents. A 2010 report by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers found that the worldwide rate of bus deaths was four per every one billion kilometers travelled — the same rate as for cars.