Detailed statistics on travel

On the ground, in the air, on the water – across the United States we travel hundreds of millions of miles each year. So what are the safest and most dangerous ways to travel? Based on the total number of deaths and injuries, traveling by air is the safest mode of transportation and traveling by car is the least safe. How is this determined? Detailed statistics are kept by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) and other organizations.

The Safest and the Least Safest

The USDOT publishes data, including safety figures, for all modes of transportation in the United States. The data include numbers of deaths and injuries. The October 2015 report includes preliminary data collected through 2013. For all modes of transportation, the DOT reports 34,509 fatalities and 2,333,903 injuries. Of the major methods of transportation, transit (e.g., subways) had the fewest fatalities, 266, with only 60 of those being passengers. Air travel saw 429 deaths, with the majority of those in general aviation accidents, not on major airlines. On the water, there were 642 deaths (most while recreational boating) and the railways saw 706 deaths but only 11 because of train accidents.

Road travel is the most dangerous mode of transportation. Of the 34,509 total deaths related to transportation, 32,719 (94.8%) of those were on the road, with 11,977 being car occupants, 9,155 being light truck occupants and 4,668 being motorcyclists. This category also includes cyclists (743 deaths) and pedestrians (4,735 deaths). Turning to injury numbers, 99% of them occurred on the roads, with approximately 1.3 million injuries to passenger car occupants and 750,000 to light ruck occupants. About 66,000 pedestrians and 48,000 cyclists were also injured.

This pie chart clearly shows that the large majority of transportation fatalities occurs on the roadways.

This pie chart clearly shows that the large majority of transportation fatalities occurs on the roadways.

While the number of deaths and injuries through transportation methods seem staggering, the overall trend is a decline in these numbers. For example, from 2000 to 2013, there was a decrease of about 9,500 deaths (22.1%) and 473,000 injuries (16.9%) in all forms of transportation. Though the totals have fluctuated a bit, road deaths and injuries decreased at these same rates overall during this ten-year period.

The greatest fatalities decrease in an single mode of transportation was seen in passenger car occupants. From 2000 to 2013, the number of deaths of car passengers declined by about 42% (20,700 to 12,000). Better safety equipment, such as air bags and use of seatbelts contributed a great deal to this decrease. However there was a 61% increase in motorcyclist fatalities (from 2,900 in 2000 to 4,700 in 2013).

This line graph shows the decrease in passenger car fatalities over a 14-year period.

This line graph shows the decrease in passenger car fatalities over a 14-year period.

Fair Comparisons?

There is a large amount of data involved in determining the safest way to travel, but are the comparisons among the various modes fair? Some things to consider:

  • People do not actually have a choice among all modes of transportation. To get from home to the grocery store, one cannot take a plane, a train or a boat. The car is generally the mode of choice (and necessity) to get most places. Other modes, such as buses, may be available, but they are generally not as convenient for most people. So it seems only natural that cars are used much more than other vehicles and that there would be correspondingly more incidents on the roads that lead to death and non-fatal injuries.
  • There are fewer trains and planes. Not only are there millions of cars on millions of miles of roadway, compared to thousands of trains and airplanes, but their movement is also not as regulated as trains and planes. Trains run on tracks and are operated by trained professionals, and there are signaling systems to guide the conductors. Planes are also operated by highly-trained professionals, and air-traffic controllers are tracking the movement of all the planes, thus keeping them from colliding. Drivers have very little training, and while rules and signals are in place on roads, enforcement of them is difficult.

Government agencies will continue to collect detailed statistics on transportation safety. And the industry will continue to work on ways to make travel – especially by car – safer. If individual drivers do their part, perhaps someday we will see few deaths and injuries on the roadways. To learn more about tracking travel data, consider pursuing a degree in data science or analytics.