Is Riding the Train Safer Than Driving?

Randal O’Toole of the Theroux Institute does a nice job of fulling together fatality statics from different modes of travel. In light of discussions sparked by the tragic derailing in Los Angeles, he updated the figures. . . Fatalities Per Billion Passenger Miles Urban interstates 3.4 Other urban freeways 4.6 Other urban roads & streets 6.9 Buses 4.3 Heavy rail 3.1 Commuter rail 7.7 Light rail 11.6 The highway data are from 2003 and are based on US DOT’s Highway Statistics . You can specifically download fatality data here and vehicle mile data here. Multiple vehicle miles by 1.6 to get passenger miles. The highway numbers have declined slowly but steadily over the years, so it makes sense to use the most recent numbers. Transit data are more problematic because transit represents such a small share of travel that the numbers can vary substantially from year to year. For example, during the 1990s, light rail fatalities varied from 2.9 per billion passenger miles in 1997 to 19.9 in 1993. There is no clear trend upward or downward, however, so it is appropriate to use a range of years. US DOT’s National Transportation Statistics has data from 1990 through 2000. (Specifically, use table 1-37 for passenger miles and table 2-32 for transit fatalities.) To these data I added data for 2001 from the National Transit Data Base and specifically table 23. Unfortunately, US DOT stopped keeping track of fatalities after 2001. In any case, the numbers show light rail is the most dangerous form of motorized urban travel, followed by commuter rail. Adding suicides doesn’t change the ranking, but it does make light and commuter rail even more grisley: In 2001, light rail was involved in 3.5 suicides per billion passenger miles; commuter rail in 4.1; and heavy rail 1.8. By comparison, buses were involved in less than 0.05 suicides per billion passenger miles. Rail advocates often ignore the numbers per billion passenger miles and focus on the 40,000 auto fatalities per year. The absurdity of this can be seen by the following example: Far more people are killed in airline crashes each year than by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Does this mean it is safer to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than to fly in an airplane? Of course not.

Adrian Moore

Adrian Moore, Ph.D., is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.