Helicopter tragedy: Why disasters are so thankfully rare

Tom Welsh
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R a helicopter clipped a crane and crashed into a busy Vauxhall road yesterday, killing two in tragic circumstances and injuring a further 12, it’s only right that we pause our busy lives for a moment, pay tribute to the superb work of London’s emergency services, and be thankful for the miracle that there weren’t more casualties.

There’ll be calls for change. Perhaps skyscrapers should be more clearly illuminated, especially along the Thames. Perhaps, given the changing geography of London’s skyline, we should be stricter about where helicopters can and cannot fly. Short of banning commercial helicopters from London, however, it’s not obvious how regulations could be tighter.

But we mustn’t panic ourselves into hasty reactions. We should remember just how rare these accidental disasters are. While there were 18,937 helicopter flights over London in 2012 alone, there’s no record of any similar incident ever affecting the capital before. On the contrary. We’re living in one of the safest eras for travel in recent history.

Take aircraft. There were 219m passenger departures and arrivals at UK airports in 2011 – up 4.1 per cent on 2010. But across Europe, there was just a single fatal scheduled air accident in the same year, as measured by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Between 2002 and 2011, flights in EASA member states had some of the lowest accident rates in the world – 1.6 per 10m flights. On a global level, in 2011, the number of aircraft fatalities also dropped to one of the lowest levels ever seen.

This trend is true across the board. On the Underground, while customer journeys increased from 1.07bn in 2007 to 1.17bn in 2011, the number of major accidents declined from 144 to 127. London road deaths in 2011, compared to the 2005-2009 average, fell by 20 per cent for pedestrians, by 35 per cent for car occupants, and by 31 per cent for motorbikers. The picture only worsened for cyclists, with one serious injury or worse for every 49,000 journeys in 2010 – up from one in every 58,000 journeys in 2007.

It’s not only less likely that travellers will suffer an accident, but more likely they’ll survive relatively unharmed if they do. The Department for Transport has tracked the data over the last decade and, while the number suffering death or injury in transport accidents declined by 35 per cent between 2001 and 2011, the number of those accidents causing fatalities dropped to 1,901 – a 49 per cent fall.

The reasons for this are complex and difficult to credit individually. Technology has played its part. Better automation in aircraft cockpits is reducing the risk of human error. Advanced braking systems in cars have built on the safety achievements of airbags and seatbelts. Transport for London also says falling numbers of road deaths are linked to smarter road design. The burgeoning network of cycle superhighways could help make the growing number of bike journeys in London far safer.

While this mustn’t detract from the pain and fear caused by yesterday’s disaster, we can at least recognise it for what it is – a tragic rarity.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M.