How safe is ballooning?

January 9th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

A prominent Canterbury balloonist and friend of the pilot of the balloon at the heart of Saturday’s disaster in the Wairarapa has cautioned against speculation over the cause of the tragedy.

Martyn Stacey, of Methven, was also at pains to stress that the sport is safe.

Stacey, the Aoraki Balloon Safaris operator and Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand president, was a close friend of pilot Lance Hopping, who was killed along with 10 passengers in a fiery crash in Carterton early on Saturday morning. …

“It’s a shock to the whole community. What we’ve got to reiterate now is that ballooning is safe. People have to understand that ballooning is a major tourist operation.”

The deaths have been a major international story. They even made the Drudge Report which gets 30 million views a day. It was reported in UK and Australia also. The reality is that no one will be wanting to book a balloon ride in New Zealand for some time. In fact, it may damage the practice internationally for a period of time.

My flatmate has a voucher for two to do a balloon ride in the Wairarapa. Even though I’ve done one before in Egypt, I’m like “Don’t invite me to go with you”. It is a bit creepy thinking that if she had redeemed them this weekend, it could have been her up there.

In another close call, I’m horrified to see this video of a bungee cord snapping over crocodile infested waters.

I wondered where this happened, and it was at Victoria Falls over the Zambesi, where I spent Christmas Day. I saw several people bungee from that bridge, and almost did one myself. As I had done a bungee before at Skippers, I didn’t feel the need to do a second one.

Horrified to see the cord snap, or somehow not be secured correctly. A miracle the young girl survived. She had to swim to shore with the cord still tying her legs together.

Anyway going back to the ballooning:

There had been only three fatal balloon accidents in New Zealand in the past century, he said.

“You’ve got more chance of drowning or being run over by a car.”

I’m not sure that is the case. It’s like when people say elephants kill more people than sharks. What is a better comparison is how much time do people spend in the vicinity of elephants compared to swimming with sharks, and what is the fatality rate.

I’m not sure how many people balloon a year, and for how long, but to compare to road deaths, you need to compare per (say) million hours of an activity.

In NZ let’s say three million people spend 10 hours a week driving. That is 30 million hours per week, or 1,500 million hours per year. If 300 people die in car crashes then that is 0.2 deaths per million hours.

Now I have no idea how many people balloon in NZ every year. So I’ll guess some figures just so one can do a potential comparison. Please note these are not actual figures, and I am not saying ballooning is or is not more safe than driving. Just showing what a proper comparison would be.

Let’s say there are 50 ballooning operations in NZ. Also assume each goes up once per day (tends to be sunrise) with 10 people in them, and they stay up for an hour. That is 500 person hours a day which is 3,500 a week and 175,000 person hours a year.

Now if car fatality rate is 0.2 deaths per millions hours (or 1 death per five million hours), then you would expect one ballooning death around every 30 years, for ballooning to be safer than driving.

How with three accidents in the last century that could suggest they are of equal risk. But only if just one person died in each accident, and that is unlikely.

It would be great if someone somewhere (maybe an insurance company) calculated and published the fatality incidence rates for everything from driving to cycling to bungee jumping to ballooning to rafting to safari touring on a per (million) hours basis. That would be an interesting comparison.

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