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

28 thoughts on “Rail Is Safe–What About Our Roads?

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I’m skeptical about the walking numbers, and wondering if the full denominator is really being caught there.

    Perhaps also the biking numbers, although in both cases it highlights who “wins” conflicts with cars in a system designed with primarily the cars in mind.

  2. Shawn

    Open question: What would this same data look like if converted to average deaths/hour of travel?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I wrote about this a while back on streets.mn, “saying goodbye to the passenger mile” (https://streets.mn/2012/11/20/saying-goodbye-to-the-passenger-mile/)

      “Most of those studies have a similar reliance on the “passenger mile” as a statistic. That’s not quite fair to bicycles, because the average distance of trips for bicycles and cars are very different. Picture two different people, dependent on two different means of transportation:

      The point is that, travelling by bicycle involves keeping trip distances to very small numbers. When considered on an accidents per/trip basis, or an accidents per hour travelling basis, bicycle will appear a lot safer. If you measure per/mile, cars appear a lot safer.”

  3. James WardenJames Warden

    The author wrote: “Many car miles are on quite safe rural interstates, while most bicycle and walking miles are on more dangerous urban/suburban roads.”

    This isn’t accurate. Minnesota had more than twice as many rural fatalities in 2013 as urban fatalities. 212 of the 239 rural fatalities were on Interstates or U.S., state or county highways. By contrast, urban areas had 118 fatalities across all road types, and only 10 of those were on city streets (plus one “other). Looking only at interstates, rural areas had 12 fatalities to the eight in urban areas.

    Rural roads of all types — with the lone exception of municipal streets — are incontestably more dangerous to drivers. Drivers are able to reach speeds that put them in danger on roads that often lack safeguards to protect them from their mistakes. City streets may pose dangers to pedestrians and cyclists, but drivers have much less opportunity to reach life-threatening speeds for vehicle occupants.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks James. My reference was to fatalities per mile. From everything I’ve seen our Interstate highways have a much lower rate of fatalities per mile than any other type of roadway. ??

      The overall point was from my previous article (https://streets.mn/2014/07/01/bicycling-relative-safe/) where data showed riding a bicycle to be about 9 times as dangerous, per mile, as riding in a car. After a bunch of work I concluded that was not an accurate comparison because the bicycle number included mostly city miles while the car number included a lot of interstate miles. My goal was to get to an apples to apples comparison of what the risk exposure is for like roadways. If you can add anything to improve the accuracy of that comparison I would greatly appreciate it. It’s been a struggle.

      1. James WardenJames Warden

        Don’t have access to MN data at the moment, but nationally rural is still more dangerous per mile. Per NHTSA: “In 2012, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.4 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas (1.86 and 0.77, respectively).”


          1. James WardenJames Warden

            Fair point. But I think if your initial statement was intended to make a better comparison of urban to urban, the larger trend of rural being more dangerous than urban still stands.

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

              Agree. The big question, for me anyway, is how does bicycling, walking, and driving compare from a safety standpoint? If I’ve a meeting at a cafe 2 miles away then what is the relative risk of each option? (That’s what I was trying to get at in the Relatively Safe post).

              As best I could I took interstate highways out since that is a motor vehicle only domain and so miles and fatalities for bicycle riders were not present. People still ride bicycles on other rural roads and those fatalities and miles are still in the bicycle fatalities per mile calculations. Either way it’s extremely rough. How do we get to a more accurate comparison?

  4. Wayne

    I think it’s worth noting that almost all of the ped/bike fatalities are due to automobiles hitting them. So if you charted it as a ‘blood on their hands’ sort of graph it would be all cars all the time for almost all deaths.

      1. Wayne

        Or blame the traffic engineer that built roads for cars to go so fast their reaction speed wasn’t fast enough to avoid killing someone moving significantly slower than them. In all of these interactions if you subtract the car, almost no one dies. Blaming the victim in traffic accidents needs to stop. I don’t care if someone was riding a bike unpredictably or crossed the street outside of a crosswalk. If cars were absent or travelled more slowly, almost no one would die in these interactions. I don’t accept these deaths as inevitable or the fault of anyone other than the driver or person who designed the road. They’re not ‘accidents,’ they’re death by negligence of some party who is not the one killed by it. Socializing the death toll as the price of ‘progress’ is absurd and inhuman.

        1. Monte Castleman

          So lets set speed limits on freeways to 20mph or just ban cars from them in case a drunk pedestrian wanders onto them because no one is responsible for anything if they don’t happen to be in a vehicle? OK. Let’s see how well that proposal goes over with the general public.

          1. Wayne

            Really? How many pedestrians or cyclists are killed by cars while on freeways? I’m obviously talking about surface streets here, and yes, let’s lower the speed limit to 20mph on all non-highway streets. If you could actually enforce this via design or policing you’d have a real shot at getting to almost zero pedestrian and bike deaths.

            But cool job making a straw man argument, there.

            1. Monte Castleman

              You didn’t exclude freeways in your proposal and there’s one or two pedestrian deaths a year on freeways.. And I suppose a “surface streets” include US 10 between Anoka and Elk River, where most of the pedestrian deaths are jaywalkers, a suicide, and violating the “Don’t Walk” sign. If that’s the case no wonder there’s so much hatred and distrust directed to the cities from the suburbs. If people wanted a pedestrian friendly, car hostile environment presumably they’d move into the cities instead of Ramsey.

      2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Isn’t “fault” a debatable social construct? To Wayne’s point, there is a lot of validity to institutional rather than situational fault. Our road designs are informed by laws around how they’re used/by whom. Laws are also informed by road designs.

        I don’t accept that every single road injury or death is the fault of engineers. Places in the world with street designs many advocate for still have deaths. Some people will still choose to drive drunk, or feel comfortable driving a speed that doesn’t allow them proper reaction time. A street designed for 15 mph could still get icy. A pedestrian could still jump off a freeway overpass, etc.

        But if US road fatalities per population were on par with areas of the world with calmer streets and better “alternative” transportation, the numbers would be sub-10k compared to 32k right now. So I think its fair to question our societal definition of fault.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          Very true.

          If every driver diligently obeyed every law and paid 100% attention to what they were doing then we’d likely have many fewer fatalities. 5% as many perhaps? That would be good.


          We’re dealing with humans. And this is where my discussions with U.S. traffic engineers and Dutch engineers is so different. U.S. engineers (and NACTO and AASHTO) are quick to say “if only everyone obeyed the laws”.

          Dutch (and Swedish & Norwegian) engineers approach is that they know and acknowledge that people won’t obey non-sensical laws and they will occasionally be distracted so roads must be engineered for these. Narrower lanes encourage people to pay better attention. Tighter radius turns force people to slow. Right-On-Red is illegal because they learned that people doing this wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t always look. Strict keep-right-except-to-pass reduces conflicts on multi-lane roads.

          Dutch junctions are designed to allow drivers to negotiate the junction without having to consider bicycle riders because they know that many drivers are not able to deal with too many things happening at once. This is accomplished either by separation in time using signals or separation in space such as a tunnel for bicycle riders. Also by placing surface crossings a car length away from the junction so that a driver can negotiate the junction and then, with a less distracted mind, deal with bicycle riders (and pedestrians) crossing the road.

          Similarly they have very few stop signs. Part of which is that roundabouts are safer and more efficient but also because they know that in most instances stop signs aren’t very necessary if there is little conflicting traffic, that people will then disregard them (they are often non-sensical), and they don’t want to encourage law breaking which they know can metastasize to other areas. Instead they utilize sharks teeth (yield).

          Autonomous driving cars that eliminate the human factor may be a solution but my recent experience and conversations with engineers indicates that this is a good 30 – 50 years off.

          1. Monte Castleman

            I’d have to disagree with our traffic engineers have a “blame the victim” mentality. If there’s a safety problem, they try to fix it. A pedestrian gets hit jaywalking 70 mph expressway rather than go a few hundred feet out of their way? Build a fence until interchanges can get built, which would make it much safer for both cars and pedestrians (like on US 10). Pedestrian gets hit in a heavily used crosswalk on such an expressway? Build a pedestrian bridge over, like on MN 252 at 85th. Drivers too dumb to yield a green and smash into oncoming cars? Ban permissive turns, like in Stewartville, or develop a new indication to address the problem, like the flashing yellow arrow.

              1. Monte Castleman

                I’m not sure how much different that actually is. Looks like they’re talking about “Through Roads, Distributors, and Access Roads”. Sounds like what we’re trying to do here in newer developments now that we’ve realized the mistake of 4 lane death roads and direct residential and business access to collectors and arterials.. Trying to physically separate road users on higher speed roads is what we’re doing here. Setting speed limits reasonable for the road type is what we’re doing here.

  5. Steve

    It would be interesting to know how many of the road fatalities involved alcohol, and how it differs between countries.

    From my (limited) time spent in Europe, there seemed to be a lot less social and legal tolerance for drunk driving than in the US.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Comparing data is difficult across countries (isn’t it always?). This page (that looks like it was built in 1998) has as decent a cross-section as I’ve found http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/research/AlcoholCountries/background_&_intro.htm As you can tell, data reliability (how many drivers and pedestrians were tested at the scene) and BAC threshold for “alcohol involvement” vary. Still, the US is in the upper tier even when you consider many countries with a similar rate have the threshold at .05% rather than .10%.

      This document with data from the early 2000s puts the US in the upper ranges as well http://www.who.int/roadsafety/projects/manuals/alcohol/drinking_driving.pdf

      Finally, I do think you’re right about tolerance for drunk driving in other countries. .05 or lower seems to be the case in many places http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drunk_driving_law_by_country and my experience in Germany says the same as you – much stiffer penalties.

      To what extent do our land uses (proximity to a range of drinking options) and transportation options (does transit run late, is biking a safe/reasonable alternative, walking there, etc) influence our high rates vs social and legal tolerance?

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      As Alex so well pointed out, it’s complicated. 🙂

      Most crashes (and injuries and fatalities) have multiple causes. Eliminating any one or even two will likely lessen the number but I don’t know that it’d do so by any significant amount. If 25% of crashes are attributed to alcohol and then we completely eliminated all DUI then I don’t think we’d see a 25% reduction but maybe a 5% or 10% reduction. Good, but not good enough.

      Distracted driving caused by texting gets a gob of attention. Has the the number of crashes and fatalities increased commensurate with it? I am extremely against any phone use (even hands-free) by drivers because I think it is extremely dangerous but even if every driver stopped using their phones tomorrow I don’t know that we’d see a very significant drop in crashes and fatalities.

      That said, I do think that as a society we need to take a much harder stance against every kind of distracted driving be it due to alcohol, pot, cell phone, or eating a hamburger. Our new found fear of speaking up about immorality (and in my opinion choosing to drive while distracted endangers others and is thus immoral) is not serving us well. We need to also be realistic about what impact this will have.

  6. Suzanne

    Thank you for sharing this insight. I often think about the dangers on the roads and off, so this is very eye opening to look at first hand.
    I hope others get the chance to look at this. I’m going to pin this to my Pinterest board to help educate more people.

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