Even though it’s much more statistically dangerous to drive to and from your local grocery store, plane crashes—when they do happen—tend to get major news coverage and dominate the topics of conversation on social media.
It has been no different for Germanwings Flight 9525, which went down in the French Alps on Tuesday, and it was all the major news outlets could talk about. Last year, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 dominated headlines for weeks, if not months.
Long-term trends suggest that it’s becoming safer to fly. Two decades ago, it was common for worldwide aviation deaths to top 1,000 per year. The worst crash year on record was 1972, with 2,429 deaths.
So, why are we so fascinated with plane crashes?
It’s simple: Fear.
“The fascination with plane crashes is interesting because, while travel by automobile is far more deadly statistically, with cars, there’s an illusion of control, meaning that drivers feel like they can avoid the risk of a fatal car accident because of their seemingly superior skills,” said Jessica Rios, a psychologist with iCouch–an online therapy company.
Rios adds that the fear of flying “often stems from the feeling of giving up control and putting complete trust in the competence of strangers.”
“A plane crash represents a type of accident where the passengers have practically zero influence over their survival. The fascination over crashes is that every single person that flies in an aircraft has thought of the ‘what-if’ scenario. When a plane does crash, there’s a sense of relief that it wasn’t ‘their’ plane that crashed,” she adds.
As many experts have noted, the fear of flying isn’t based on reality.
“Fear of flying is a feeling. Feelings aren’t facts,” Martin Seif, who is a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, told the Washington Post in December following the deadly AirAsia passenger jet crash off the coast of Indonesia. “And almost every person who’s afraid will say ‘my fear is out of proportion to the danger, and I can’t reason my way back.'”
To put this in perspective, there are an average of 3,287 deaths per day in car crashes around the world, adding up to 1.3 million deaths connected with road accidents each year, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel. Another 20 million to 50 million are injured in auto accidents. In the United States, more than 37,000 people die each year.
It’s still unclear what caused the Germanwings plane to crash, but French officials confirmed the plane’s black boxes have been located. The actual cause of the disaster likely won’t be determined for several months.
The plane’s “flight path is consistent with a controlled descent,” which means the plane is “either under the control of the pilots or the autopilot during the descent,” said Maxwell Leitschuh, a transportation analyst with travel industry risk management firm iJET International, via email.
“The consistent nature of the descent would likely rule out an in-flight breakup, a high-altitude stall, or a complete loss of control. All of these problems would cause a much steeper and less consistent descent.”
Cockpit voice recordings and, hopefully, flight data will provide the main clues to investigators trying to understand what caused the plane to crash.
But that is just the beginning. Drawing on decades of experience with crashes around the globe, French officials will analyze thousands of pieces of wreckage, maintenance log books, and other clues to determine what led the Airbus A320 to crash into a mountain, killing all 150 passengers and crew.
“Mapping the accident site is a very detailed process that can take days and sometimes weeks,” warns Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.