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The issue of whether flying a helicopter is safer than driving a car, truck, or SUV is a question that’s been asked for many years. For those that can afford it, helicopters provide convenience, with the ability to whisk people across the sky, avoiding city traffic. Let’s take a closer look to see what transportation mode is more dangerous. We also look at the safety factor for other travel types, including airplanes

Helicopter or car, truck, or SUV: What’s safer?

Helicopter flying near coast, showing if it's more dangerous or safe than driving car, truck, or SUV
Helicopter | Walter Gaspar via Unsplash

The thing that got me thinking about this helicopter vs. car, truck, or SUV safety issue was watching Succession. It’s an HBO series about the multibillionaire Roy family, owners of the Waystar RoyCo international media conglomerate. There are frequent shots of them flying across New York City in helicopters, with the nonchalance of it being a normal everyday occurrence.

While these helicopters provide quick and easy travel for the rich and famous, all it takes is an engine failure or other mechanical malfunction for them to come crashing to the ground. Whereas if a car breaks down, often, it means just pulling over to the side of the road. 

High-profile incidents of helicopter crashes

Due to their explosive and shocking nature, helicopter crashes get a great deal of attention in the news. For example, there were recent military helicopter crashes during training missions in Alaska, Kentucky, and Alabama, per AP News. Three soldiers were killed, and another was injured in an Alaska incident. Also, two were injured in a separate one in the state. For the crash in Alabama, two crewmembers died. Additionally, the one in Kentucky was the worst, with the deaths of nine soldiers. 

Furthermore, there have been high-profile deaths of celebrities in helicopter crashes, such as basketball superstar Kobe Byant in Calabasas, California, in 2020. As detailed by Ranker, earlier incidents include blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn near Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin, NASCAR driver Davey Allison near Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, and legendary music promoter Bill Graham near Vallejo, California.

Also, I live not far from the EAA Adventure airshow at Wittman Field in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At the end of July each year, the tiny airport becomes the busiest in the world. Unfortunately, with the high air traffic, there’s been some heartbreaking helicopter and plane crashes over the years. 

Driving a car, truck, or SUV is more dangerous than flying a helicopter

Vehicle crashed into building, showing if driving car is more dangerous or safe than flying helicopter
Truck stuck in building | Conor Samuel via Unsplash

All of these high-profile incidents make it seem like flying a helicopter is more dangerous than driving a car, truck, or SUV. However, the opposite is true. Driving is more dangerous.

The Points Guy created a morbidly-titled “death index” for different modes of transportation. It looked at data collected from the NHTSA, DOT, and NTSB over a decade, showing the number of deaths per hours traveled.

Based on this analysis, the Points Guy showed that commercial airplanes are the safest type of transportation. While flying a helicopter is more dangerous than flying commercial, it’s safer than driving a car. On a per-hour-traveled basis, you’re more likely to die in a crash in a car, truck, or SUV — than in a helicopter.

Here is the death index for each transportation mode. It goes from “1” being the safest for commercial airplanes — to higher numbers for more dangerous with a higher death rate — for other types of travel:

  • Driving or riding in a car, SUV, or truck: 453.6
  • General aviation, such as private planes: 271.7
  • Non-scheduled helicopter flights: 63.0
  • Non-scheduled charter flights: 59.5
  • Mass transit (bus and rail): 49.8
  • Scheduled charter flights: 34.3
  • Intercity rail (Amtrak): 20.0
  • Commercial airplanes: 1

As shown by the list, driving or riding in a car, SUV, or truck is the most dangerous mode of travel. It has a death index of 453.6, which is more than seven times the 63.0 index for non-scheduled helicopter flights. Commercial airlines are the safest, followed by intercity rail (20.0) and charter flights (34.3).