Man Bites Dog

Freakonomics had a nice post about the media coverage of Metro’s recent crash, drawing parallels with airline crashes and the perception about the safety of these various transport modes:

But what the media very rarely mention is that the carnage on our roads makes these much-hyped accidents look almost trivial. Nine lives is nine too many, but there were 39,800 motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2008 alone (and that was a good year). At that rate, between the time of the accident, June 22, and the time you are reading this, on average about 1,000 Americans died on our roadways. Yet this rarely merits a mention by the press.

And I think there is one more key dynamic. Heavy rail (the mode in the Washington crash) is a lot safer than car travel; in 2006 (the last year for which I have data) autos were responsible for five times more fatalities per passenger mile. (See here for auto fatalities per year, here for transit fatalities, and here for passenger miles traveled by mode.

In 2007 and 2008 there was not a single fatal accident associated with a major commercial airline. This year has seen 60 deaths (most from a single crash), but that still makes commercial air travel vastly safer than driving. Even in 2001, the year of a (hopefully) freak disaster on 9/11, commercial air travel had a per-passenger mile fatality rate about one eighth that of driving (see here for air fatalities).

Matt Yglesias had a similar feeling in the immediate aftermath:

— Fatal train accidents are national news stories precisely because they’re so rare. Deadly car crashes are a dog-bites-man story. Obviously, what happened was unacceptable but the fact remains that commuting by rail is very safe.

So far, I’ve been very impressed with the man on the street interviews most local TV stations have had with Metro riders.  Almost all of them have expressed this exact same sentiment – despite the accident, Metro is still the safest way to travel.

My anecdotal evidence from riding shows very few people have been avoiding the system.  Yesterday’s ridership report (June 2) shows system-wide ridership of 778,670.  Considering the proximity to the long weekend, that’s exactly what you’d expect to see.  It’s down from last year’s number on that date, but gasoline last summer was a lot more expensive.


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