The Danger of Safety
In case you haven’t heard, an accident on the Washington metro claimed nine lives last week. But then again, chances are you have heard, as the crash got wide coverage over the airwaves, on the net, and in the papers (by my count, at least five articles appeared in The Times). This is usually the case when trains or planes are involved in deadly disasters.
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.
Why the disparity in coverage? I don’t think it has anything to do with any particular animus toward transit; on the contrary, I personally think the press has a pretty strong pro-transit slant.
Instead, a number of factors are probably at play. A flood of simultaneous deaths seems to titillate us more than a steady drip (and let’s not forget that we are being titillated here, or the media wouldn’t be serving these stories up). There’s probably a threshold effect at work, as a certain plateau of deaths triggers the dispatch of reporters. Perhaps crashes involving larger vehicles are more “photogenic.”
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).
The relative rarity of air and rail disasters makes them novel, and hence news. Car crashes bite man, and rail and air crashes bite dog. Intensive coverage of the few air and rail accidents that do occur in turn promotes the widespread — and erroneous — inference that planes and trains are unsafe. In an unfair irony, in transportation perhaps too much safety can be a dangerous thing.