The Safest Place to Sit in Cars and Planes?

by | Sep 6, 2018


The dreaded middle seat with a hump!

Cars have become much safer over time as the fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has decreased from 5.04 people to 1.18 in 2016. Related IFOD: Do Safer Cars Lead to Reckless Driving?. Yet, there are about 5.5 million auto accidents a year resulting in about 35,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries. Given these figures, where is the safest place to sit in a car?

Researchers at the University of Buffalo studied years of crash-related data and found that the backseat is 59% to 86% safer than the front seat and that the middle seat in the back is 25% safer than the window seats in the back.

What kind of car you are sitting in makes a big difference. Even with all the advances in safety technology, there still is no getting around the laws of physics when it comes to size and weight of a vehicle. The study found that when cars and SUVs collide there are much better outcomes for those in the SUV.  According to the lead author: “When two vehicles are involved in a crash, the overwhelming majority of fatalities occur in the smaller and lighter of the two vehicles. But even when the two vehicles are of similar weights, outcomes are still better in the SUVs, because in frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, due to bumper mismatch, crushing the occupant of the passenger car.”

How about airplanes?

It is likely a pretty widely held belief that if your plane crashes you are probably toast.  Well, in actuality, the statistics are a bit better than that.  Advances in technology now mean that over 90% of plane crashes have survivors.  In the US alone, between 1983 and 2000, there were 568 plane crashes. Out of the collective 53,487 people onboard, 51,207 survived.

So, where is the safest seat?  Many people think that it doesn’t matter where you sit – that there is no “safest seat.”  Not true according to a study performed by Popular Mechanics.  The study examined the records of the NTSB for the 20 flights since 1971 on commercial airliners in the U.S. that crashed that had both fatalities and survivors.  The study suggested that the farther back you sit, the better your odds of survival. The rear cabin (seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing) had the highest average survival rate at 69 percent. The overwing section had a 56 percent survival rate, as did the coach section ahead of the wing. First/business-class sections (or in all-coach planes, the front 15 percent) had an average survival rate of just 49 percent. Sitting near an exit has been shown (duh) to increase survival odds in a different study.

Here’s an experiment performed in 2012. Researchers used an uncrewed Boeing 727, filled crash test dummies and cameras, and flew it into the Mexican Desert and simulated an emergency landing. As you can see, those in the front of plane probably didn’t fare well when the front of the the plane broke off.

Of course, when you sit in the back of the plane you have more engine noise and, unlike first class, they don’t give you warm nuts or (marginally) free scotch.


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