By Larry Short
The answers may surprise you.
Also, it depends on how you look at the data. This page on Wikipedia looks at it in three different ways: 1) Deaths per journey traveled. 2) Deaths per hour spent traveling. Or 3) Deaths per kilometer traveled.
It seems to me like the most logical way to look at this data would be the second choice, deaths per hour spent traveling. If you looked at the first, too much depends on the length of the journey, weighting it (I assume) against longer journeys. If you look at the second, too much depends on the speed of travel, weighting it unfairly toward air travel.
BUS TRAVEL: .011 deaths per million hours of travel. In other words, there are 11.1 deaths per billion hours of travel. (Or just over 1 death per 100 million hours of bus travel.)
An average lifetime (72 years) is 630,720 hours in length (72x365x24). There are therefore nearly 159 average lifetimes in 100 million hours.
So, in order for there to be a statistical likelihood of you being killed by traveling on a bus, you would have to ride for nearly 159 lifetimes. So I don't think the average person needs to worry much about taking a bus trip.
RAIL TRAVEL: .030 deaths per million hours of travel. In other words, more than 50 lifetimes' worth of travel by train would give you a good statistical chance of being killed on a train. I'm one of the few (well, truthfully, the only) person I know who has actually been in a train accident. A few years ago I was riding the Amtrak from Chicago to Pittsburgh when we struck a car trying to cheat a railway crossing. We were doing about 80 mph at the time. Actually, the accident didn't even wake me up; no one in my car (at the very end of the short, 7-car train) even felt the impact. You've got a lot of momentum on a train going that fast! What woke me up was the engineer abruptly standing on the brakes (for about a half mile, until the train finally rocked to a stop). Of course, by then we were a good quarter mile past the intersection where the accident occurred. The car we hit wasn't quite so lucky.
AIR TRAVEL: .038 deaths per million hours of travel. Still almost 50 lifetimes' worth of flying, 100% of the time. I find that oddly comforting. Like most people, in the air is (for some reason) where I feel most afraid of dying. Statistically speaking, at least, this makes little sense, at least when compared with other forms of transportation.
However, I have also come closer to actually crashing in an airplane than anyone I know. (In a storm in Alaska in 1979. That story for another time.)
WATER TRAVEL: .050 deaths per million hours of travel. (By boat, I assume. I'm guessing they don't include swimming in this, or the number would probably be far higher. But most people don't consider swimming "travel," I suppose.) So, statistically, 1 death per 20 million hours of boat travel ... that means you could travel by boat for nearly 32 average human lifetimes before you stood a statistically even chance of dying.
I have been in one boating accident, in a speedboat that hit a wake wrong and was flipped 360 degrees so that it landed (backwards, but rightside-up). We all got very wet, and a little bruised, but fortunately no one was ejected from the boat or otherwise hurt.
VAN TRAVEL: .060 deaths per million hours of travel make this the second-safest (behind buses) method of travel on our roads. You could ride in a van for about 26 lifetimes before you stood a statistically even chance of dying. (But of course, who would want to?)
I've never been in a van accident. (Knock on wood.)
CAR TRAVEL: .130 deaths per million hours of travel. Here's where the odds suddenly and rather dramatically decrease for you. You are more than twice as likely to die from a car accident as from a van accident (and nearly twice as likely to die from a van accident as from an air accident). But still, your odds aren't near as bad as I might have otherwise thought, considering how many auto fatalities you hear about. Thirteen deaths per 100 million hours of car travel means you could ride in a car for about 12 lifetimes before you stood a statistically-even chance of death. (Of course, many people spend much of their lives in a car.)
Like most people, I have been in a few car accidents over the years. Only one I consider had significant potential for killing me, and even that one I (thankfully) escaped with just a bad bump on my head. (I told that story recently in this blog.)
FOOT TRAVEL: Think you're safer walking? Think again. There are .220 deaths per million hours of foot travel. So you are nearly twice as vulnerable as a pedestrian, as you are a passenger in a car. And, if you live in the big city, I'm sure your odds are even worse. Still, with 22 deaths per 100 million hours of walking, you could walk for about 7 lifetimes without a serious problem.
I have been struck by a car (as a pedestrian) only once, in the parking lot of my high school, by a female teenage driver who was apparently distracted by a letterman. But fortunately she was only going about 10 mph and I rolled off her hood without injury.
BICYCLE TRAVEL: Here's where it gets personal for me. You are more than twice as likely to be killed during an hour of cycling as you are during an hour of walking: .550 deaths per million hours of bicycling. That translates to 55 deaths per 100 million hours of cycling, or 1 death for every 2.9 complete lifetimes spent on a bike.
I probably spend about an hour a day (on average) on a bike. That means my chances of dying (sometime in my life, assuming that statistic held up) on a bicycle would be a little better than 1 in 69. Actually, since I've only been cycling that seriously for the past 10 years, my chances of survival are probably much better than that. (Let's say I keep cycling for another 30 years, 'til I'm 85, which I hope to do. That means less than half my life investing an hour a day on a bike, so my chances of death about 1 in 130. Much better odds, even for a person who spends a lot of time cycling.)
Strangely enough, and this may be just general bad luck or klutziness, I've already had three life-threatening accidents on a bicycle. The first was being hit from behind by a VW bus (doing 50 mph) while riding home from junior high school. I lost a lot of skin on that one and was pretty sore for a long time, but no broken bones. The second was a bad spill mountainbiking in a remote area, in which I broke a cheekbone, and lacerated my face and kneecap pretty badly. And the third was being hit from behind in a crowded urban area during rush hour, the most damage from that being a serious concussion. In accidents #2 and 3, my helmet (which was crushed both times) probably saved my life. In #1 I wasn't wearing a helmet, and fortunately didn't hit my head at all.
So, as I see it, there are two ways to look at it, given how many incidents I've experienced using various forms of transportation. I'm either extremely unlucky and should stay home, or especially stay away from bicycles. Or else, I've already weighted the odds way in my favor (having beat death three times already) and should therefore cycle with abandon. I choose the second option (as I know cycling is, in general, good for my heart health, and I enjoy it so much besides).
However, note here that there is one more form of transportation even more dangerous than cycling (and it is actually nine times more dangerous even than that):
TRAVEL BY MOTORCYCLE: 4.840 deaths per million hours of motorcycling. Breaking it down into "lifetimes spent on a motorcycle" you are therefore looking at one death per every 206,612 hours spent on a motorcycle. Since the "average life" (as we have been defining it) has 630,720 hours, that means you could spend less than a third of your life on a motorcycle before you would have a statistically even chance of being killed.
Not good odds at all, in my book. I've only been on motorcycles a few times (when I was young), and they scared me to death. Never again. Especially given my experience on bicycles, I will stay off motorcycles, okay?
And I am also sending this blog to my friends and loved ones (you know who you are) who are motorcycle people. Be warned!