Highway vs. Aviation Safety

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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the nation’s highways are safer than in years past.

Assuming you’re in a car, that is. Apparently if you’re driving a truck or walking, somehow the trend is going in the wrong direction.

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) — The number of people killed on U.S. highways fell for the fifth consecutive year in 2010, marking the longest streak of declines since records began in 1899.

Fatalities dropped 2.9 percent to 32,885, the lowest since 1949, the Washington-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said today in an e-mailed statement. Deaths of motorcyclists, pedestrians and large-truck occupants increased.

A Los Angeles Times article quotes the NHTSA as calling this number “the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010″.

Since my focus is obviously on aviation, I’m curious about how this compares with the fatal accident rate for general aviation.

The FAA’s most recent statistics cover the period through September 30th of this year and show a current rate of 1.16 deaths per 100,000 hours flown.

In order to make an equivalent comparison, we have to convert miles driven to hours driven. No one knows how many hours Americans spend on the highway each year, but we can ballpark it if we can come up with an average speed for the nation’s automobiles.

For a conversion factor, I looked at data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the NHTSA’s Highway Safety Desk Book. No clear national highway speed average emerged, but there were several studies which showed that highway speed limits are frequently exceeded. No surprise there, right?

In 2007 the Institute monitored travel speeds on interstates in 8 metropolitan areas (Albuquerque, Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Omaha, Tampa and Washington, DC). On urban interstates, the average speed of passenger vehicles exceeded the limits in all 8 metro areas. On suburban and rural interstates, average speeds were faster than the limits in half of the metro areas. The proportion of passenger vehicles exceeding 70 mph on urban interstates ranged from 1 percent in Denver and Tampa to 38 percent in Albuquerque, while the percentage exceeding 75 mph on suburban and rural interstates ranged from 6 percent in Los Angeles to 49 percent in Tampa. The same study examined segments of rural interstates located 30-50 miles outside 3 of the metro areas (Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Los Angeles). Outside Washington, where limits are 70 mph, 19 percent of passenger vehicles were logged exceeding 70 mph, and 3 percent surpassed 75 mph. Speeds were much faster on the Los Angeles intercity segment, where 86 percent of passenger vehicles surpassed the 70 mph limit and 35 percent traveled faster than 80 mph.

If we assume an average highway speed of 65 mph, an automobile fatality rate of 1.1 per 100 million miles comes out to one death every 1.4 million hours. The GA equivalent is 16.24 fatalities per 1.4 million hours. In other words, the fatal accident rate for general aviation (defined as all aviation except for airlines and the military) is 16.24 times worse than that for the nation’s highways.

Of course, if my estimate of the average speed of a car on the highway is wrong, the ratio would change accordingly. Lower highway speeds would give cars a better comparative safety record per hour driven. Likewise, if cars average higher speeds, general aviation looks more favorable.

Any way you slice it, it seems you’re safer in a car than you are in the air, unless you’re flying the airlines. Their safety record is so good that in some years you couldn’t even perform a comparison with automobiles because the Part 121 airlines had no fatalities whatsoever.

For a more detailed look at how various GA segments stack up safety-wise, take a look at the Air Safety Institute’s annual Nall Report. I love this publication because it breaks down the numbers based on a variety of factors including phase of flight, commercial vs. non-commercial, fixed-wing vs. helicopter, mechanical vs. pilot error, etc.

If you’re a GA passenger looking for tips on how to judge the relative risk of a particular flight, I wrote about some things to consider (see “Is Flying Safe?“) when flying general aviation.

I said it before and I’ll say it again, the one thing airplanes and cars have in common is that accidents due to mechanical failure are extremely rare. Crashes, especially fatal ones, are almost always caused by errors of judgement by the operator. Driving while intoxicated. Scud running at night. Aggressive or distracted driving. Deplaning a passenger with the engine running. You get the picture.

So while nobody’s perfect, you’d do well to consider your opinion of the person you’re traveling with before zooming off into the sunset. It’s difficult to quantify solely with numbers, but it’ll improve your odds dramatically regardless of the conveyance.

My New Car!

To those of you who said I’d never get a new car — and I know there are a lot of you out there — feast your eyes on this:

2008 Honda Accord coupe

Yeah baby! It’s a 2008 Honda Accord LX-S Coupe. I’ve been waiting for this car to hit the showroom floor since I first saw photos of the concept vehicle at the auto shows last year. In my opinion, it’s one of the best looking automobiles on the market today, and you can get them for around $21,000. Mine’s a base model four-cylinder with 190 hp. Any more horsepower and I’d be getting speeding tickets right and left. Now I’ll just be getting them left.

The navigation system, leather seats, moonroof and XM radio push the price closer to $30,000, so I went with the base model and certainly haven’t been disappointed with what I got for the money. Vehicle stability control, dynamic braking, drive-by-wire throttle, side curtain airbags, active head restraint, active noise cancellation (yes, aviators, you read that right — an ANR system for the entire car!), 17″ wheels, cruise control, tire pressure monitoring system, 6 disc CD changer, automatic transmission, power windows/doors, remote keyless entry, heated windows.

Hell, I was excited just to have power steering.

The buying experience was not exactly painless, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I have the internet to thank for that. These days you’d be crazy to deal with a retail salesman; get internet quotes via the web and ensure you work with the internet department at the dealership. That’s what I did, and my negotiations started off at invoice price. Keep in mind this is on a new model, too. The 2008 Accord is completely redesigned, so I was going after a brand new generation, not some design which has been around for years. This is a relatively hot item.

I don’t begrudge the dealership making a few dollars, but the spread between invoice and MSRP was about $2500. There’s no way I was going to wade through that chasm.

The worst part about the buying experience was dealing with the exasperating finance person. You think you’re done with the sales department and they hand you off to a smiling person who is ostensibly not a salesman. Yet before you know it this guy — who is supposed to be getting your paperwork in order — is trying to sell you an alarm system, Lojack, extended warranties, and more.

What the heck?

I said no to each and every item. If you look closely at the terms of the extended warranties, they usually exclude most of the big ticket items. Timing belts, catalytic converters, exhaust systems, etc. And none of them cover preventative maintenance, so you’d be lucky to get any coverage at all in the event of car trouble. Plus, if you don’t keep the car in tip-top shape, they’ll deny your claim right off the bat. I know this because I actually read the warranty! When I asked the finance guru if he’d mind my doing that, the look on his face told me I was the first one that had ever asked to read the thing. How sad is that?

They do their best to confuse you with semantics. “Oh, this is a six year warranty!” Uh, no it’s not. The factory bumper-to-bumper warranty covers me for the first three years, so it’s really only a three year extension of the already-included warranty. And the powertrain is warrantied for five years, so it’s only a one year addition there. And then only on items for which the warranty administrator (aka not you) approves coverage. All this for only $1800! No thanks.

I couldn’t help but laugh at how the salesman insisted Hondas are the epitome of reliability, yet the guy trying to sell the warranty will scare you with tales of expensive computer components which are sure to fail. Which is it guys? Is this a reliable car or isn’t it?

Anyway, I arrived at the dealership around 12:30 p.m. It was 6:30 p.m. and completely dark by the time I drove away from the Honda dealership. As my trusty 1993 Eclipse faded in the rear-view mirror of the shiny new Accord, I couldn’t help but feel sad about leaving my old friend behind.

My old Eclipse

The most surprising thing about the car buying experience was how incredibly sad it was to say goodbye to the Eclipse That Would Not Die. As I unloaded my personal belongings from the old gal, I was thinking about all the adventures we’d seen together. Sliding sideways into snow drifts while skating down Mammoth Mountain. Road trips to Las Vegas. Shuttling students back and forth at the airport. Literally thousands of trips to/from various rehearsals and performances all over Southern California. The marathon runs to Hollywood.

When I bought the Eclipse, the world was a different place. For one thing, we’d just elected a new president, some guy named Clinton. There was no World Wide Web. Most people didn’t have email, and only a few had cell phones. It was 1993, and I was still in college. The $10,000 cost of the car seemed enormous. How would I ever pay that off?

Over the past few years, the age of my Eclipse became somewhat of a joke, even to me. I think it was hard to let it go because it marks the end of an era. I’m not sure what that era is, but there’s no denying a lot of memories are wrapped up in that vehicle. I kept the car washed, waxed, and maintained for 15 years. And now it’s going to end up being crushed by some guy named Joe at a junk yard. How sad!

I suppose I’ll one day feel that way about the Accord. If I get the same life out of the Honda that I did from my old warhorse, I’ll be satisfied. Speaking of life, I snapped a photo of the odometer after unloading all my personal stuff from the car. The final tally: 215,724 miles.

215,724 miles on the odometer

The new car does have a lot of similarities to the old one. They are both base models. Both coupes. And both of them are red. In fact, every car I’ve ever owned has been red. I suppose I could have branched out with a new color, but the palette offered by most car manufacturers is just not very compelling. Most people seem to favor silver, gray, black, white, or some beige variation. Take a look around the parking lot next time you’re out and about. It’s a sea of non-descript bland looking vehicles! The only stand-out colors offered for the Accord coupe are blue and red, so there was really no choice to be made. I’m not driving a minivan here, folks. It’s a sporty coupe — it’s supposed to be red. The coup de grâce was when I realized that the Pitts S-2B is the same color as the Accord. Now that’s just cool!

I’m a little concerned about keeping the ivory interior clean, especially in light of the dirt and grease filled environments in which I work. Not to mention a hyper sensitivity to door dings and other road rash which can only come from buying a new vehicle. The saving grace is that most of the cars at SNA cost a lot more than mine. There are countless Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Aston Martins in the parking lot, so they’re probably more worried about my doors than I am about theirs.

The Accord seems to be a hit everywhere I go. I’ve been stopped by pilots, sheriff deputies, car aficionados, and random folks on the street who just want to get a look it. People take photos of it at stop lights. The guy who tinted the windows asked if he could take some pictures for his web site. And just the other day, a woman came in to Gelson’s (a local grocery store) while I was there. She didn’t come in to shop, but just to say how much she liked the car and to ask who made it.

Two Hundred Thousand

200,000 baby!The odometer on my 1993 Eclipse recently ticked past the 200,000 mile mark while driving back from Las Vegas.

Well, I guess “recently” is a subjective term. That was in 2006. Since then, I’ve piled on another 30,000 miles.

Everyone teases me about how long I’ve had the vehicle (it was purchased new for just over $10,000), but I’ve never cared enough about automobiles to spend the time or money on a new one every few years. So I just laugh along with them, knowing that many people spend more on their car payment than I do on my mortgage. It doesn’t hurt that I get to bypass an exasperating dealership experience.

Speaking of mortgages, the subprime meltdown has led to a dramatic change in the content of many financial rags. Instead of “Top Ten Exotic Vacations”, we find things like this tome from CNN:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — By keeping your car for 15 years, or 225,000 miles of driving, you could save nearly $31,000, according to Consumer Reports magazine. That’s compared to the cost of buying an identical model every five years, which is roughly the rate at which most car owners trade in their vehicles.

Calculating the costs involved in buying a new Honda Civic EX every five years for 15 years – including depreciation, taxes, fees and insurance – the magazine estimated it would cost $20,500 more than it would have cost to simply maintain one car for the same period.

Added to that, the magazine factored in $10,300 in interest that could have been earned on that money, assuming a five percent interest rate and a three percent inflation rate, over that time.

If you were to stash that $20,500 in a Roth IRA and never add another cent to it, in 30 years you’d have $357,712 (assuming an annualized return of 10%). That’s from driving one car for 15 years. Do it twice and you’d end up with more than half a million dollars in 30 years.

And that’s from driving a Honda Civic. If you’re thinking about a Lexus — even an entry level model like an IS250 — you could easily double the savings. The depreciation alone on the cheapest Lexus is estimated at $13,000 over five years. A Mercedes C-class has a five year ownership cost of more than $46,000!

Hey, if you’ve got the money to burn, fantastic. But there are so many people around Orange County who are stressed about paying their mortgage while they drive around in a late model Benz. The first time an expensive repair comes along which will cost “more than the car is worth”, they dump it in favor of a new ride. Talk about false economy — what they should really be comparing it to is the cost of a new car. The true cost of a new car.

Enough about that. My Eclipse won’t last forever… I think. I basically stopped doing any maintenance on it a few years ago, yet it continues to run. I attribute that longevity to the car’s extreme simplicity. No power steering, power brakes, power seats, power windows, or power doors. Unless the engine blows up, there’s really not much that can go wrong with it. ¡Viva la Eclipse!.

My 93 Eclipse

I’ve been debating what to replace it with when the time comes. Despite my happy experience with the Mitsubishi Eclipse, I’m not considering another one. The car was a major bargain when I bought it in 1993, but the prices have ballooned since that time, and I don’t really care for the styling of the new models. They lack the impressive cargo capacity of my current Eclipse.

An even larger issue is longevity of the brand. Many of the Mitsubishi dealers in Orange County seem to have closed their doors over the past few years.

The Consumer Reports story mirrors something I’ve noticed: there aren’t that many American cars from the early-mid 90s on the roads anymore. But there are plenty of old Japanese cars. I’m thinking something like a Honda LX coupe might be just the ticket. The styling of the 2008s isn’t as impressive as I’d hoped. The original concept car Honda shopped around to all the major auto shows last year was far more exotic than the final product.

When I spent the night in Midland, TX recently, I noticed that virtually every car on the road sported an American badge. I’m sure some of you might wonder why I wouldn’t support domestic auto production by “buying American”. My philosophy has always been that the very best thing I can do for our auto industry is to buy the vehicle I truly feel is best for me. If that turns out to be a Japanese or German model, then so be it.

Buying American for its own sake is penny wise and pound foolish. If American companies are not making the best cars, I am actually helping them by not buying it. Sales will be lower. If they’re smart, they’ll ask why, seek out the market leaders and make changes to their own product line. If they’re not smart, then they’ll fall by the wayside and leave market share to those who can produce a superior vehicle.

I’m not even sure what qualifies as “domestic” anymore. Take the Honda Accord: it’s assembled in the U.S. by Americans, many of the parts are from the U.S., and Honda stock is held by countless mutual funds, institutions, and individuals in this country.