Two years ago, two trains on Metro’s red line collided killing nine people in DC. In response to this tragic accident, Metro is spending $1 billion to improve the system’s safety. WMATA’s interim General Manager told the Washington Post:
“The system is absolutely safer than it was a year ago,” said Sarles, who was brought in on an interim basis in spring 2010. “We’ve adopted an attitude of we’re going to change the safety culture to one that’s going to prevent accidents.”
Despite this accident, traveling by Metro is much safer than traveling by car in the DC region. The Coalition for Smarter Growth provides data on injuries and deaths on Metro compared to driving in DC and demonstrates that while eight passengers were killed on Metro from 2003-2009, 2,057 people died in car accidents from 2003-2008 in the DMV area.
Per passenger vehicle mile fatalities are not available for the DC region, which would allow us to see these numbers in context. However, nationwide, heavy rail transit (Metro) averages 0.8 deaths per billion passenger miles compared to 7 for passenger vehicles, according to the same study.
Last week, Senator Barbara Mikulski reintroduced the National Metro Safety Act last week which would require increased national regulations for all transit systems that operate on heavy rail. Figuring out how to pay for these safety measures would presumably be left up to localities, but at least some of the costs will likely be met through increased fares. At the margin, this will lead some riders to choose the more dangerous travel option of driving, perversely decreasing public safety.
I’m not suggesting that Metro’s safety improvements are not money well-spent, but providing a guarantee of safety on public transportation would be infinitely expensive. In a world of finite resources, risks to human life cannot be eliminated. Regulators who require a given safety level on public transport must realize that the increase in costs will lead some riders to choose driving over public transit, increasing the risk of fatalities.
Rhywun saysJune 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm
I’m reminded of the ADA. It would be unseemly to argue against it – but are we really getting our money’s worth? Or think of airplane security – how much is enough money to spend on that? There has to be some limit to this, or it will wind up just being a money pit that leads to another vicious circle of services cuts and fewer riders. But at least those fewer riders will be minutely safer!!
Alon Levy saysJune 25, 2011 at 2:01 am
0.8 per billion is still very high for a subway. New York City Transit has had 5 fatalities in the last 20 years, which works out to about 1 per 20-25 billion passenger-miles. In general, the major subways of the world go hundreds of billions of passenger-miles without seeing accidents, and the accidents that happen aren’t large.
Emily Washington saysJune 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm
I agree that number seems large. Do you know off hand where more accurate numbers are available?
Alon Levy saysJune 27, 2011 at 5:41 am
Nope, sorry – best you can do is rely on compilations of disasters. Could be the numbers are inflated because they include work accidents, for example.
awp saysJune 27, 2011 at 5:35 pm
Politicians and bureaucrats are intrinsically incapable of recognizing that there is such a thing as trade-offs, because voters don’t want to hear about them. It is all for the children. Don’t you like children or puppies?
Alon Levy saysJune 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm
I like children and puppies, but only with ketchup.
MarketUrbanism saysJune 27, 2011 at 8:21 pm
that’s disgusting! A little marinade is all you need – ketchup
overwhelms the palate…
Scott Johnson saysJune 27, 2011 at 8:47 pm
In Holland, they use ranch dressing. 🙂
Scott Johnson saysJune 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm
Perhaps we should impose similar safety standard on automobiles. 🙂 If anything, we’ve gone in the opposite direction in recent years, most notably with the withdrawal of the 55MPH speed limit.
That said, as Alon points out–the WMATA has a far worse safety record than other municipal transit agencies. But this law seems a step in the wrong direction.