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Are Private Plane Flights More Dangerous Than Driving a Car?

San Diego residents might remember the plane crash on the I15 last year in which several people were seriously injured and one woman, a car passenger, was killed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has just released a report a year after the accident which indicates that the cause of the accident was sudden loss of power in the engine, but does not provide any more details about why the engine stopped so soon after the plane took off from nearby Gillespie Field.

To recap on the details of the accident, the Lancair IV plane took off just before 9 a.m. on April 2nd last year. The pilot, 62 year old Dennis Hogge, was accompanied by his wife, Celeste. He noticed that something was wrong not long after taking off and at first tried to land on the end of the runway. With the runway busy he diverted to the freeway and touched down with the landing gear up in the near side slow lane. The plane careered down the freeway for over 270 feet before plowing into the back of a Nissan sedan that was parked up on the hard shoulder. The female passenger, 38 year old Antoinette Frances Isabelle was killed on impact as the plane hit the car.

The pilot could not recall the incident after recovering but witnesses said that the engine had stopped before the plane hit the ground.

The accident is unusual in that fatalities affected people in a car, but it raises the question of which is the inherently more dangerous: private plane travel or car travel and why.

Private light plane safety is nowhere near as good as commercial airlines

The accident that happened on the I15 last year did not involve a commercial airline. It was a privately owned and operated light plane. The safety statistics for this method of travel are nowhere near as good as that of commercial airlines and, in fact, depending on the way you look at it, may be more dangerous than driving on a highway anywhere in the U.S.

The way the two sets of data for fatalities are compared, is problematic. Far more people travel by car and planes travel much faster than cars, so the statistics are a little skewed. Most revealing is the comparison between the numbers of fatalities per hour. Extrapolation from 2013 data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA), assuming an average across the board speed of 50 mph indicates that the fatality rate per 2,000,000 hours of car travel is 1.1. By comparison the same data for general aviation (private non-commercial plane travel) was 21 per 2,000,000 hours. That’s 19 times more than travel by car.

What are the causes of small plane crashes?

There are many different causes and in some crashes it’s still hard to tell what or who was to blame, e.g. the NTSB’s investigation into the Lan IV plane crash near San Diego doesn’t point fingers as to who was at fault.

However, NTSB data suggests that the majority of light plane crashes are due to pilot error. Some examples are:

  • Distracted flying: a plane crash near Denver, Colorado in 2014 suggested that the pilot was distracted by taking too many selfies with a Go-Pro camera
  • Pilot misjudging weather conditions
  • Pilot only required to take minimal training and proficiency checks every 2 years
  • Only 1 engine, so if that stops (as with the Lance) the plane is likely to crash
  • Small planes do not have such sophisticated safety features as commercial planes

While light plane crashes usually only involve the pilot and passenger(s), other people are also sometimes involved. In December 2014, a private plane crashed into a residential neighborhood in Maryland which ended up with six fatalities including people in houses that were hit.

The chance of being involved in a car crash may seem relatively high and the chance of being involved in a plane crash relatively low, but it’s not always easy to prevent either. If you, or a loved one, are involved in any kind of accident, whatever the circumstances and you are not to blame, your best recourse may be to file a personal injury lawsuit once the person or people at fault have been identified. Robert Hamparyan can provide a free consultation for an accident victim and will advise you about your chances of success if you decide to make a claim for compensation.


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