Editorial: Laser Focus on Safety

Editorial: Laser Focus on Safety

While Metro lapses can’t be excused, it’s much safer than driving; maintenance-related safety issues also plague area bridges and roads.

Intense scrutiny on the safety and maintenance record of the Washington region’s Metro system is resulting in continuing revelation of lapses, and ongoing inconvenience with repair schedules shutting down entire lines and the end of late night service.

Reporting on Metro accidents, derailments and incompetent and/or inadequate maintenance might even lead commuters to choose to climb in their cars instead. Wouldn’t it be safer to drive, if Metro can’t get its act together to even inspect the tracks?

No, not even close.

Riding commuter rail is 10-30 times safer than driving, according to several studies, and even small increases in transit ridership result in significant decreases in overall commuting deaths

Public transit overall has lower crash rates per unit of travel, reports Todd Litman in an analytical research paper, A New Transit Narrative, published in 2014 and cited by the National Center for Transit Research. Intercity and commuter passengers have about 1/20th the traffic fatalities per 100 million passenger-miles as automobile travel, he writes. Urban rail passengers have about 1/30th the fatalities as car travel, and bus passengers about 1/60th the traffic fatalities per 100 million passenger-miles as automobile travel.

“Transit travel has about one-tenth the traffic casualty [injury or death] rate as automobile travel, and residents of transit-oriented communities have about one-fifth the per capita crash casualty rate as in automobile-oriented communities,” reports Litman. “People tend to underestimate automobile travel risks and exaggerate public transit risks.”

Meanwhile, Virginia has 1,063 structurally deficient bridges, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, citing data from the U. S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inventory, 2015. Maryland’s number of structurally deficient bridges is 306, and the District of Columbia has 10 structurally deficient bridges, according to the same report.

In fact, a bridge used by 78,000 vehicles a day, including thousands of Northern Virginians commuting daily into D.C., the Memorial Bridge, is so corroded it has major weight restrictions, buses are not allowed to use it, and it would likely have to be closed within a few years, had Congress not recently allocated $90 million to the National Park Service for emergency action towards a $250 million rehabilitation project.

Risk and safety are complex issues. You’re safer taking Metro than driving, much safer on a commuter bus. And one thing we do know, if you are riding in car, buckling your seatbelt makes you much safer.

— Mary Kimm