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

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.

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