Rail Is Safe–What About Our Roads?

Last week’s train crash in Philadelphia was horrific. Fortunately, crashes like this and the associated deaths and injuries are quite rare; despite the horrific nature of these crashes, rail and air are exceptionally safe modes of transportation on the whole.



Note: While the data above are accurate it is important to provide some context. Many car miles are on quite safe rural interstates, while most bicycle and walking miles are on more dangerous urban/suburban roads. If you account for this to make for a more apples to apples comparison, then the rate of car fatalities about  doubles and thus the difference to bicycles and foot decreases by about half. Perhaps similarly, of the 29 rail deaths, 7 are on long haul trains and 22 are transit rail. For more see Bicycling Relatively Safe

A good deal of credit for our air and rail safety goes to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). They are regarded worldwide for accurate, impartial investigations and solid recommendations for improving safety.

Interestingly, they have no regulatory authority. They can’t tell anyone to do anything or implement any of their recommendations. This is possibly a good thing and a critical reason why they can remain relatively impartial. And while many NTSB recommendations are implemented, not all are. They’ve been calling for Positive Train Control, which would likely have prevented last week’s crash, since 1970 (yep, 45 years).

While some of the differences above can be attributed to inherent differences in modes, there are also infrastructure design and implementation differences that contribute to causing these deaths. This can perhaps best be seen in how much more dangerous it is to drive a car, ride a bicycle, or walk in the U.S. than in other developed countries.

Road Fatality Rate

Note that these data include total motor vehicle fatalities (cars, trucks, motorcycles) and so the 108 motorcycle fatalities per km averages with the 3.1 for cars to produce the U.S. average. 

Why is it so much safer to ride in a car in Norway? Or a bicycle in The Netherlands? Are they that much better drivers?

Perhaps a bit, but the primary difference is likely attributable to how their roads are designed to operate; both physically such as turning radiuses and regulatory such as no-turn-on-red.

Continuous Improvement

Within minutes of the crash in Philadelphia the NTSB had swung in to action and began organizing a ‘GO Team’ to investigate. According to news reports there were a couple of people there within hours, a few more by 4am, and more later in the morning. This team will devote themselves full-time to this investigation for weeks, months, or years and they should indeed do so where a single incident or the mistake of one person can have such a huge impact. It is because of this dedication that air and rail are as safe as they are. We are not the safest, but we’re not horrible either.

This doesn’t happen so much with crashes on our roads.

If you follow streetsblog.org you’ve likely read their continuing series of articles about the lack of investigations of fatal and near fatal crashes and even lack of any police attendance at many crashes.

Even when there are investigations, how accurate are they? It seems too many are determined to find no fault; if there’s no fault, then why is someone dead?

How often is the road design of a crash investigated? How often is the design at fault? What is done with the data and knowledge? What is done to prevent the same thing from happening again?

This appears quite different elsewhere. Do The Netherlands do a much better job of investigating crashes? More importantly, are they better at determining what changes are necessary to create a safer road system and implementing those changes? In the business world we called this continuous improvement. We constantly analyzed ourselves and what we were doing so we could do it better. Then repeat.

I don’t have any answers. Only a lot of questions.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN