I confess! Lately I relax by watching episodes of “Airline Disasters” on the Smithsonian Channel.
What I enjoy most about this television series is the recurring idea of redemption. Every episode ends on a positive note. Talented and diligent safety inspectors analyze every accident. Often the cause of the accident is mysterious, but our dauntless investigators hunt down every clue until the cause of each tragedy is revealed. Their accident reports result in improvements worldwide. Flying in jetliners gets safer every year. No one dies in vain. Their deaths are redeemed because others can now travel more safely. There is less suffering and fewer deaths.
I also enjoy seeing how the idea of increased safety is pursued. Is safety a quixotic ideal? On the show, herculean efforts are made to gather pieces from the crash scene, even it is on the ocean floor. Huge aircraft are reassembled in unused hangars, of which there seems to be no shortage. Every mystery is solved, no matter how intricate, no matter how hidden. Planes are made safer; pilots, better trained. In the United States of America, if you travel by air, you are now nine times less likely to die (per mile traveled) than traveling by bus. Air travel is seventeen times safer than by rail. And, frighteningly, travel by car is 1,606 times riskier than airline travel. Driving to the airport may be more dangerous than the flight.
“Fatal [airline] accidents have fallen every decade since the 1950s, a significant achievement given the massive growth in air travel since then. In 1959, there were 40 fatal accidents per one million aircraft departures in the US. Within 10 years  this had improved to less than two in every million departures, falling to around 0.1 per million today.” So reported the Allianz Group in 2015.
If this approach to safety works — examining wrecks and instituting safety measures — how would it look if the same approach was applied to automobile transportation? Can we make travel by car 1,606 times safer?
Knowing nothing, it is easy for me to suggest an answer: professional drivers and automatic pilots.
Talk about a solution impossible to implement! What democratically-elected government is going to tell its citizens that they must be driven and cannot drive themselves? “Cars … are first of all a means of personal autonomy. … Cars, in the poetic imagination, let us escape….” So writes Adam Gopnik in the June 28, 2021 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Suggesting that people stop driving is like suggesting they give up a basic freedom. It will never happen!
My hope is that asking people to give up driving is actually more like asking them to give up Kodachrome film.
People did give up Kodachrome film. Paul Simon asked his mama not to take it away but she had no control over it. We all gave up film once the quality and ease of digital cameras became obvious. Personally, I am hoping people give up driving themselves sooner rather than later, either by using ride-sharing services more frequently or by using autonomous vehicles, letting computers do the driving.
At the moment, people do not trust computers and autonomous vehicles. It is not enough that computer-driven vehicles are safer than human drivers in most situations. People want them to be perfectly safe, not just safer. If airliners have relied on automatic pilots for decades it is because the owners of airliners and government regulators have insisted on it, to make flying safer. I doubt it was the pilots who were demanding it.
In the meantime, people will continue to pilot their own cars and smash them into each other. If you are going to pray for divine protection, do so before you get behind the wheel, not before you board an airliner. Who knows? That may be me coming at you, driving my Behemoth Megavan. I may be driving in a daydream, my thoughts on the future of transportation, me all but detached from the present moment, my mind detached from my eyeballs, me oblivious to the on-coming warning signs, me oblivious of you. Yes, by all means, pray.
ABOVE: Photo of concentric rainbows — a “glory” — centered on an airliner’s shadow, the shadow of its contrail a straight line to the right. As I looked down at the clouds, I could see the jetliner’s shadow moving across them. The shadow of the jetliner’s contrail appeared as a straight line behind. Centered on the airplane’s shadow was this double circular rainbow! I had never seen this phenomenon before! It is like a rainbow, but works a bit differently, if what Wikipedia says is true. So, no, it was not a refraction of the camera lens and the window, but a vivid colorful circular double rainbow that everyone in the plane could see — if they cared to look.
Photo copyright 2012 and text copyright 2021 by Danny N. Schweers.