Out of Control Policy Blog

Clash of symbols

If this isn't a metaphor for the sprawl wars, nothing is: SUV, light-rail car collide. It's right up there with that SUV-crushing redwood from months ago.

Some harp on light rail from a safety perspective, but it's not something I tend to focus on. Still, there are safety concerns with rail, and "Stop, look and listen" (as this article suggests) may not always work.

The problem may be in our heads:

[W]hat you think you see can kill you.

"The attitude of the Federal Railroad Administration is that almost every accident that ever happened at a railroad crossing is the driver's fault," said cognitive psychologist Marc Green, a partner in the Toronto consulting firm Visual Expert.

One peculiarity of human perception is that large objects in motion appear to be moving more slowly than they really are. We can observe this phenomenon at any airport, said Herschel Liebowitz, emeritus professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. Jumbo jets appear to drift down to the tarmac during landings, while smaller jets seem to race toward the runway, even when the larger plane is going faster.

Liebowitz, who first described the size/speed effect and other grade-crossing perils in 1985, field-tested his theories by riding in the cab of a locomotive and questioning railroad personnel: "It was almost immediately obvious what the problem was.... People misestimated the speed of trains."

Ted Balaker is Producer


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