Despite Monday’s Dramatic ‘L’ Crash, Transit Is Far Safer Than Driving

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The aftermath of the O’Hare crash. Photo: CBS

Monday morning’s spectacular Blue Line crash at O’Hare, which caused 32 non-serious injuries, has resulted in a predictable media frenzy and an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. This scrutiny of ‘L’ train safety is certainly appropriate, especially since the NTSB is still investigating a September 30 crash at the Blue Line’s Harlem station in Forest Park, which resulted in 33 minor injuries.

Meanwhile, one end of the Red Line was also closed by a crash on Monday morning. A fatal car crash on the Dan Ryan received only cursory media attention. But since there were 124 fatal car crashes in Chicago last year, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, it’s not surprising that one more is not considered big news.

Yesterday, Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser did a good job of pointing out that, despite the hand-wringing over CTA safety that is currently taking place, riding a train or bus in this city is much, much safer than driving. He looked at data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning that showed there were 182 injuries per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by car in Chicago in 2011.

Meanwhile, Numbers from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database and the CTA showed that there were only 47 injuries per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by CTA that year. That figure may actually make transit sound more dangerous than it is, since it includes injuries to people waiting for or leaving transit. Since bus and ‘L’ crashes generally occur at slower speeds than car crashes, it’s also likely that injuries on the CTA tend to be less severe than those suffered in automobiles.

Again, it obviously makes sense for the authorities to do everything in their power to prevent ‘L’ crashes like Monday’s from taking place. That train hopped the platform and struck an escalator around 3 a.m.; had this happened during rush hour, it’s likely there would have been fatalities.

But as Streetsblog New York discussed in the wake of a derailment last fall in the Bronx that killed four and injured 61, when train collisions happen, the situation is viewed as a safety crisis that needs to be solved immediately, but deadly car crashes are generally treated like business as usual. However, every traffic injury and death deserves the same kind of scrutiny as those resulting from train crashes. We need to apply the same urgency to addressing the 30,000-plus automobile fatalities that take place each year in the U.S. if we’re going to solve this country’s car crash epidemic.

  • Anne A

    Good point. Transit crashes with injuries are very rare compared to car crashes, rare enough that it’s not something I consider a significant risk when choosing my method of transportation. I feel much safer on a train than traveling any other way.

  • CL

    I think people react more to transit crashes because when you ride the train, you have no control over your own safety. But with driving, most people hope that their own defensive driving will keep them safe.

  • Kevin M

    I would argue that drivers have an unrealistic (perhaps even false) sense of control over their safety–even more so on highways. The human error factor is exponentially greater on roads than rails.

  • No Ur Fax

    It’s a known fact that 80% of drivers are above average drivers.

  • BlueFairlane

    Not true. Almost all drivers have no idea what they’re doing. Except me. I’m really good.

  • rohmen

    I agree with the idea that greater urgency needs to paid to solving the U.S.’s (and world’s, really) crash epidemic. That said, I think it’s fairly normal to see a very large amount of attention paid to this type of situation. The CTA L system failed in a way that most people never would have expected or assumed was even possible, and that draws valid concerns to addressing flaws in the system that shouldn’t exist.

    Similarly, in the automobile context, we saw a very large amount of attention and urgency paid to fixing the gas-pedal problem in Toyota’s when that flaw was identified–though that design flaw had only resulted in something like 30 deaths out of the literally thousands upon thousands of traffic deaths that occurred world wide during the period when the design flaw existed. The pinto is another example where media paid a huge amount of attention to one particular automobile design flaw, while glossing over the fact that several things could have been done to improve the safety of people utilizing autos during that time period.

    Point being, I think the common thread is that people freak out and demand an immediate resolution whenever they see a systemic failure arise out of something that they didn’t even think was a possibility to harm them–though a person likely faces even greater known and avoidable dangers on a day-to-day basis. It’s not just a problem of priorities, it’s an element of human nature.

  • Jim Mitchell

    That’s pretty close; this article says 75% of drivers think they are safer than other drivers: http://lesswrong.com/lw/awm/how_to_avoid_dying_in_a_car_crash/

    When riding public transportation, there is nothing you as a passenger can do to mitigate your risk. That is why common carrier/public transit crashes terrify the public and are more newsworthy than (most) car crash deaths. Even though drivers do have a significantly warped perception of their own prowess and safety, people are still correct to believe that *many* car crash victims really did bring it on themselves and could have taken reasonable steps to avoid it. Passengers on planes and trains and buses that crash have no such control.

    By contrast, there *are* things you can do to protect yourself as a driver of a car. You can avoid driving while impaired or distracted (no texting, etc.). You can obey speed limits and drive appropriately for conditions. You can also drive defensively and to some extent mitigate the risk of other drivers’ bad behavior becoming your problem. Not everyone does all of the above, but those who do are less likely to kill themselves (or others) in a car wreck.

    The above measures of course cannot reduce your risk of dying in a car wreck to 0% (e.g., where you are the passenger or another innocent victim), but it can definitely reduce your risk *as a driver* of dying from a self-induced, negligent and avoidable wreck by a huge margin, and I surmise (without statistics to back it up) that this will reduce your overall risk of dying on the road by some very significant margin.

    Those who die in car wrecks are not some homogenous group of random victims. Some were already at a higher risk before the wreck occurred; most were at a lower risk. Of those killed in traffic collisions, how many are the drunk driver him/herself? How many were distracted (sending a text when they crashed)? Subtract all those deaths from the total, where a driver essentially committed suicide by negligence, and then what are the remaining number of deaths on the road? Would that number look better, worse, or about the same as deaths of passengers on public transit? Maybe it would still be a lot worse, but I have never seen the numbers, and on its face it seems disengenuous to combine all deaths, including those of drivers who brought it on themselves through their own negligence or reckless behavior, in the same category as innocent passengers and drivers who were killed by either another driver’s negligence or due to nobody’s fault at all.

  • No Ur Fax

    “I have never seen the numbers”

    You should’ve written that first, so I wouldn’t have read the rest of your post.

  • lindsaybanks

    One thing that I just recently learned more about (and feel is never mentioned) is how crazy expensive each and every car crash is. Each fatal car crash costs us $6 Million! AAA did a report in 2009 (somewhat old, so the numbers are probably even higher) on the cost of crashes and rated it far higher than congestion. Check it out: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-11-02/fatal-vehicle-crashes-cost-millions/51051030/1

  • neroden

    I’m slightly better than average (and yes, I have driving test results to prove that) but my God, the other drivers I see on the road. I have very little control over my safety because of all the other maniacs on the road. Tailgating is *constant*, everywhere. Not a damn thing I can do to stop it.

    FWIW, Chicago expressways are *particularly* unsafe because *nobody* maintains a safe following distance and if you do someone will cut you off!

    Most people don’t really perceive that part, though. People are just more comfortable with the illusion of control.

  • neroden

    “Would that number look better, worse, or about the same as deaths of
    passengers on public transit? Maybe it would still be a lot worse,”

    It would still be a lot worse. I’ve only seen rough estimates, but it’s orders of magnitude higher.

  • Jim Mitchell

    Thanks for helping answer my question.

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