Malaysia crash interest shows how safety has improved

The massive coverage given to the Malaysian air disaster highlights, paradoxically, the fact that air safety has improved remarkably in the past couple of decades. Certainly, the mystery of its disappearance has heightened the drama, but when I was transport correspondent of the Independent 20 years ago, air disasters outside Europe generated little media interest because they were relatively frequent and generally thought to be inevitable; a price that had to be paid for our mobility.

At the time safety analysts for the industry were warning that if the number of flights continued to grow and safety did not improve, by 2010 a plane would be going down every week, putting at risk the survival of the industry. People would simply not want to fly if the risks were perceived to be too great. In fact, safety has improved to such a degree that crashes of jets run by established European, American and Asian operators are relatively rare, and attract the kind of blanket coverage accorded to the demise of flight MH370. Flying in Africa and in some former Communist countries remains far less safe than in the west, but even there the record has improved recently.

The massive improvement in aviation’s safety record is the result of a series of factors: safety in transport industries has traditionally improved through trial and error; accidents highlight weaknesses in safety systems; and lessons are learned. Spurred on by public concern, airlines have been forced to accept ever tighter regulations on every aspect of their operations.

New planes are significantly safer than their predecessors in every respect. Crashes in the past were caused by a range of faults, from engine failure and metal fatigue to parts falling off and planes simply crashing into the ground through a navigation error (known in the business as CFIT, Controlled Flight Into Terrain). While extremes of weather and bird strikes continue to pose a risk, modern planes are far more resilient than in the past. Hijacking, a cause of several accidents in the 1970s and 1980s – and of course 9/11 – has been made very difficult thanks to the security passengers have to go through to get on a plane.

Far greater automatic control of flying has also greatly reduced the scope for pilot error, a frequent source of accidents in the past. That said, better training has meant that pilots have managed to avert major disasters, such as in the case of the US Airways Airbus that was safely crash-landed in the Hudson river in New York in 2009. In the UK, the last fatal accident involving a commercial flight was the Kegworth disaster in 1989, caused by a combination of mechanical failure and pilot error which killed 47 people.

The railways, too, have seen a similar improvement in their safety record. There has been only one fatality in a rail crash since 2002, a record unprecedented in the history of the industry. In the 1980s, for instance, there were 17 fatal train crashes with a death total of 88.

Thanks to improved technology, intense media scrutiny of disasters and the realisation by transport operators that disasters are bad for business, stepping into a plane or a train is a far safer experience than it was in the past. That said, travelling will never be 100% safe.

  • oriordan

    So when does the same focus on safety applied to rail and air travel get applied to the roads…?

  • Dave H

    Oriordan – when TfL and other roads authorities actually deliver their statutory obligations set out under section 39 (3) of Road Traffic Act 1988, and investigation reports are published, as they are for rail and air crashes.

    It might also focus minds if deaths occurring on the public road were followed through as cases of manslaughter, as they are with rail crashes, rather than euphemistic rebranding of causing death by XXX driving, just because it is a motor vehicle and not a chainsaw or any other piece of machinery that can kill or maim.

  • RapidAssistant

    Never, because it’s largely impossible when you are dealing with individuals operating a dangerous appliance in relative freedom. Where does it stop then – do we apply the same focus then on all other similar activities that are potentially dangerous – using a chainsaw, climbing the stairs, boiling a kettle, heating up a chip pan? We have a big enough nanny state as it is.

    Rail and aviation are easy to regulate because they are both centrally controlled, and by their very nature – both are infinitely more dangerous than cars if they were operated in the same laissez-faire way that we drive.

  • Paul Holt

    To supplement the points you are both making, how many car/train/plane movements occur each day? I suspect there are many more car movements than train movements and more train movements than plane movements. So the accident rate per movement may not be so different for car/train/plane.

  • Chris M

    “The railways, too, have seen a similar improvement in their safety record. There has been only one fatality in a rail crash since 2002, a record unprecedented in the history of the industry”.
    Err… no. Far from it, although I agree safety is much better..

    Potters Bar 2002 – seven people killed including a pedestrian
    Ufton Nervett 2004. Six people on the train including the driver were killed.
    Grayrigg 2007 – one person killed.
    There have also been two train drivers killed on a narrow gauge steam railway in Kent due to collisions with road vehicles.

  • Peter van der Mark

    In the discussion about the relative safety of car vs train and plane the difference in forces involved makes sure that any train or plane incident that goes pear shaped becomes a disaster only too easily, whilst every day scores of cars prang into each other that no one ever hears about as no one got killed or wounded due to the comparatively low forces and present day good vehicle construction involved. But make no mistake, this sort of incident is not tolerated on road passenger operations, railways, air and maritime traffic and triggers an investigation by the relevant traffic safety authorities plus undesirable negative exposure in the media. The main difference between this and private traffic is that rail, air, maritime and much of road freight and road passenger traffic is worked by well-trained professionals who have a vested interest in sticking to rules, regulations and the safe option because otherwise they no longer have a job. That same issue does not apply in the same way to private road users, who only have the potential discovery of misbehaviour and dealing with subsequent correctional measures as a deterrent. Look at some of the prangs on motorways. Impossible in professional traffic operations.

  • Paul Holt

    The Evan Davis viewpoint is worth considering, and it applies to cars, planes, trains and ferries. What is significant is not how many people die as a result of car/plane/train/ferry movements, but how few.

  • RapidAssistant

    Ufton Nervett was caused by a suicidal motorist, so it doesn’t count. Grabbing at straws here.