Controlling Trains Will Save Lives, Reducing Car Speeds Will Save Many More

One of the frequent car crashes at North and Kedzie Avenues. Photo: Katherine Hodges.
One of the frequent car crashes at North and Kedzie Avenues. This location’s proximity to Humboldt Park makes it eligible for speed cameras but doesn’t have them. Photo: Katherine Hodges.

After the fatal Metro-North commuter rail crash in the Bronx this weekend, yesterday the Chicago Tribune published an informative article about Positive Train Control for Metra. PTC is a technology that can slow or stop a train when the engineer is incapable of operating it, not paying attention, or when something else goes wrong.

After a commuter rail crash in Los Angeles killed 25 passengers, Congress mandated the installation of PTC on all passenger trains, including Amtrak, by 2015. The LA train driver had been distracted by text messages and the train passed a red signal, colliding with a freight train.

The political response to the Metro-North crash has been swift and forceful too. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said, “Additional delay [in implementing PTC] is not in the interest of rail safety.”

That’s true, but it’s remarkable that we never hear the same type of urgency when it comes to a much more widespread danger in our transportation system: drivers traveling at excessive speeds. It’s also not in the interest of anyone’s safety to delay implementing measures like slower urban speed limits or increased enforcement of speeding.

A young person who witnessed the Metro-North crash from his apartment told the Washington Post, “It makes me grateful that I have a car,” and the New York Times interviewed a person on the train who said, “You think you’re safe on the train, I know I’m going to be taking a car for a while.”

Driving, however, is exponentially more dangerous than riding a train, and speeding on city streets is the leading cause of traffic injury and death. The data reveal that policy makers should be responding even more urgently to the dangers on our road than on the rails.

  • The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates train, bus, and air crashes, said that 57 deaths – nationally – from 2004-now could have been prevented with PTC.
  • In a shorter period, from 2009 to 2012, 554 people died on Chicago roads, 22 percent of them to speeding or driving faster than appropriate for conditions. Speeding crashes represent only 3.24 percent of all reported crashes.
  • Since 2003, Metra has seen two deaths that could have been prevented with PTC.

Metra says the cost of PTC for all 11 lines is $235 million, and the agency may face penalties if it doesn’t have the system installed by the 2015 deadline. Congress has not provided any funding for national freight and transit railroads to implement PTC.

The Tribune quoted one unnamed consultant saying, “If something goes wrong again, God forbid, the elected officials who voted for the delay will end up wearing the jacket.” There should also be political consequences for putting off proven safety measures on our streets. After all, devoting $235 million to traffic safety improvements would have an even greater effect on saving lives than Positive Train Control.

Ask your legislators, where’s our Positive Car Control?

  • Wait, Congress is “angry” (or wants to appear so to constituents) about the lack of PTC but they aren’t funding it? $235 million for one of the largest commuter rail networks in the country?

    I’m sure I’ve said it before but you know how frustrating it is to see cars get this technology for the user (e.g. reading emails aloud) but nothing is legally mandated with it. I think one govt agency just “advised” manufacturers to not install anything distracting in the car, which they are obviously ignoring as they install more screens and functions that aren’t related to driving or safety. There could be a speed governor in every car. The GPS in my mom’s car knows the speed limit of roads it drives on, for example.

  • CL

    I’m assuming that speeding crashes means that speeding was determined to be a factor — but it’s hard to say what that means, exactly, since the driver was doing more than speeding if he hit someone. Speeding has to be combined with inattention, failure to yield, failure to brake to avoid an accident, etc, in order to cause an accident — speeding makes it more likely that those things will happen, and more likely that the crash will be deadly, but it isn’t the only cause.

    I also think that when we compare driving to other modes of transportation, the number of people using each mode needs to be factored into it — more people die driving than riding trains, but more people drive period. 86% of workers commute by car and 5% commute by public transit (according to the ACS).

    However, I certainly agree that 554 deaths in Chicago during that period is way too many, even when you factor in the number of people who drive.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last April issued voluntary draft guidelines recommending that in-car systems be prevented from undertaking a number of tasks – including emailing and texting – unless the vehicle was in “park”. The auto manufacturers say that’s stupid since it will only encourage drivers to disconnect their devices from the in-car system to send their text or whatever. That, the automakers say, would be still more dangerous. I wrote about the row here:

  • John Montgomery

    If you measure fatalities per passenger mile, it is far far more likely to be killed as a passenger in an car than as a passenger on a train.

  • CL

    Definitely (and really there should be no fatalities on trains at all). But just comparing the statistics without including the base number of people is misleading.

  • There are two crash cause codes I used for my analysis: “speed excessive for conditions” and “exceeding speed limit” (the more frequent cause code).

    Unfortunately, the crash data I have stops at two cause codes (nearly 50% of crashes have no primary cause listed, instead saying “N/A” or “Unable to determine”) and I don’t have access to the police officer’s narratives, or any followup information.

    Edited to clarify what I meant by “no cause listed”.

  • PhotoRadarscam

    It’s always impossible to say if a crash could be avoided by driving a few mph less, but the primary cause is almost always something else, with fewer than about 3% of all crashes being caused by exceeding the posted limit, according to the NHTSA. If slowing people down really is the magic bullet and saving lives is so important, then why not reduce all limits everywhere to 10mph? That would save an enormous amount of life, right?
    The real answer lies in proper engineering and using a scientific and fact based approach to safety, rather than haphazardly throwing “solutions” at a problem. But few officials like to take that path when there are lucrative enforcement options available that give the generally-dumb-public the impression that something is being done while filling state or local coffers.

    Why are some roads safer than others? Is it the drivers or the road? The narrative here shows an ignorance for the theory of speed zoning and a misunderstanding of the psychology behind how speed limits work (or more accurately state, how they don’t work) to control speeds.


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