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Are helicopters safe? How they stack up against planes, cars and trains

Jan. 26, 2020
5 min read
Are helicopters safe? How they stack up against planes, cars and trains

Editor’s note: This post, originally published on May 21, 2019, has been updated in response to news of Kobe Bryant's death in a helicopter crash, as many readers have been searching for answers about helicopter safety.

How likely are you to die flying in a passenger helicopter? Are airport-bound travelers who use a chopper to soar above the traffic of New York trading away safety for speed? What about people who take helicopter sightseeing tours?

Many are asking these questions and more following the news that Kobe Bryant, legendary NBA basketball star, and several others died in a helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas, California on Jan. 26. Our condolences are with their families.

The answer, based on a TPG analysis of a decade of safety data: Like almost every other mode of transportation, flying in a helicopter is considerably more dangerous than airline travel. But it’s far safer than riding in a car.

Helicopter travel is, using our metric, slightly more dangerous than mass transit, but we can broadly say they’re in the same safety band.

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About TPG's analysis: There's no perfect metric for comparing any two modes of transportation, no ideal way to get an apples-to-apples comparison, such as helicopters to cars. But because all transportation modes have metrics in common, it’s possible to triangulate and devise a rough index comparing all the modes.

To construct this methodology, TPG looked at several data sets. We know the number of fatal accidents or fatalities for all modes of transportation. We know the number of flight hours for airline flights and helicopter flights. We know the number of passenger miles traveled for airline flights, rail travel and (roughly) car travel.

We don’t know the number of passenger miles for helicopter flights and there’s no such thing as flight hours for cars and trains. But based on the flight-hours data, we DO know how much safer it is to fly on an airline than to fly on a helicopter. And based on the passenger-miles data, we DO know how much safer it is to fly on an airline than it is to ride Amtrak or other mass transit — and, in turn, how much safer it is to be on mass transit than it is to ride in a car. Then we can use all the relative safety numbers to come up with a comprehensive ranking (albeit one with caveats; more on those in a moment) for all modes of transportation.

Here’s the full ranking of how much more likely you are to die, roughly, by traveling a similar distance in the U.S. on each mode of transportation, with airlines as the baseline. The "death index" is the number of times more likely you are to die. So, for example, the data in the chart below shows that a person traveling in the U.S. by intercity rail is 20 times as likely to die from that mode of transportation while traveling the same approximate distance as compared to a person flying on a scheduled passenger flight (though the rates for each are low).

Transportation modeDeath index
Intercity rail (Amtrak)20.0
Scheduled charter flights34.3
Mass transit (rail and bus)49.8
Non-scheduled charter flights59.5
Non-scheduled helicopter flights63.0
General aviation (like private planes)271.7
Driving or riding in a car/SUV453.6

Chart data compiled and analyzed from NTSB, U.S. DOT via Diio Mi, NHTSA.

As you can see, the only mode of transportation in the same realm as driving is general aviation. And even general aviation, by this measure, is safer than driving. Also, with all modes of transportation, these are averages comprising very different situations: General aviation’s average includes new recreational pilots without instrument ratings who accidentally fly into storms, as well as experienced airline or military pilots who fly their own planes on their days off. Similarly, helicopters often serve tricky missions, such as dangerous rescues from hard-to-access places, for which few other vehicles are suited; fatalities that result from those efforts factor into the averages alongside sightseeing tours and trips to the airport.

And of course, few trips involve choices between all these modes of transportation — almost no one gets to choose between a subway and an airline. What remains clear is that anyone who does choose to drive a long distance on safety grounds, rather than flying, does so despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Outside of driving, among other modes of transportation, your chance of dying is low enough that it’s probably rational to just do whatever’s fastest, cheapest, most convenient — or the most fun.

Featured image by Getty Images/Onoky