The world was shocked and saddened by the death of Dan Wheldon, a popular Indy Car driver who was involved in a 15-car pileup at the Indy Car World Championships a few weeks ago. To some it’s raised the question: should Indy Car racing be allowed, or is it just too dangerous for the drivers? It’s a complicated question with no easy answer.
First, the most basic; how many have died? IndyCar, for example, has seen four fatalities since it was started in 1996, while the CART series which it split from has seen four fatalities since 1979. That doesn’t sound great, and when held to government standards, the numbers don’t look good.
The National Highway and Transportation Administration calculates fatalities per million miles driven, and if you do the math compared to the numbers of those involved, it means since 1979, Indy Car racers have driven 775,000 miles or so, meaning with eight fatalities that 10 drivers die per million miles driven; even the worst state in the Union for traffic fatalities, Montana, averages 2.12 fatalities per million miles driven. Still, in the history of Indy Car driving, more drivers have died off the track for other reasons than on it in a crash.
Of course, driving itself is unsafe: car accidents come in fourth, after heart disease, cancer, and stroke, as the way you’re most likely to die, according to the National Safety Council. The flip-side of that, of course, is that Indy Car racing is a lot different from driving down to the store for a gallon of milk: it’s contained, high-speed, and there are a lot of competitors in a small area.
Still, fatalities on the Indy Car circuits are rare compared to their rivals in stock car racing. NASCAR alone has had 52 fatal accidents since 1949, eight of those in the last decade and three in 2000. There have literally been 33% more fatalities at Daytona than all of Indy Car racing. This isn’t to say NASCAR doesn’t take safety seriously: it’s worked hard to protect drivers and stop fatalities, in fact using safety technology well ahead of what’s available to consumers. And it’s worth noting the vast majority of tragedies among NASCAR drivers happen off the track and are often due to medical issues that have nothing to do with racing. But if we’re discussing outlawing one, we should take a look at the other.
It’s also worth looking at other sports fatalities: professional football has seen five in-game fatalities, professional baseball has seen three deaths during a game, and the NHL has seen two. Football and ice hockey also raise serious questions about injuries and player quality of life. While they may have fewer player deaths on the field, issues surrounding head injuries, broken limbs, and other health problems can haunt players for years and cut their lives short. While the data is still cursory, it’s starting to look like football and hockey players are at far more health risk than any other sport…including motorsports.
In the end, it’s simply this: motorsports are incredibly dangerous, but there isn’t a single driver who gets into the seat unaware of the risks. Similarly, their league wants their drivers to be safe, and new safety technologies are being developed and incorporated almost daily into the vehicles that roll out onto the track. Millions of dollars are poured into making the sport as safe as possible. But no matter what they do, there is always going to be a risk, and it’s up to the league, the drivers and the fans who pay for tickets and watch on television to decide what’s acceptable.