Despite Metro-North Crash, Riding the Rails Is Safer Than Riding a Car

A fatal train crash north of New York City raises fears about the safety of rail travel. But a look at the numbers shows that trains remain much safer than cars

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Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

A commuter train derailed north of New York City on Dec. 1, 2013, killing at least four people

Sunday’s horrifying derailment of a commuter train north of New York City left at least four people dead and more than 60 injured. Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the accident, which came on a sharp right curve at a spot where the Harlem and Hudson Rivers meet. (Early reports suggest that excessive speed may have played a role.) It’s not the first accident in 2013 for the Metro-North railroad, which carries over 80 million people to and from New York each year. In May, two Metro-North trains collided in Connecticut, injuring more than 70 people. And over the summer a freight train carrying trash derailed on the same curve of track where yesterday’s accident occurred, though no one was hurt.

Sunday’s catastrophe — the first time passengers have died in Metro-North’s more than 30-year history — might prompt more than a few commuters to consider handing in their monthly commuter-rail passes and making the trip to work by car instead. But that would be a mistake — and not just because the traffic entering and exiting Manhattan during rush hour could be its own circle of hell. Despite the recent accident, traveling by rail is far safer on a mile-by-mile basis than riding in a car — though neither is as safe as flying. Here’s a quick rundown of the fatality rates for different modes of transportation, taken from a recent paper in Research in Transportation Economics (and hat tip to this piece by Leighton Walter Kille, which directed me to the original research):
CARS/LIGHT TRUCKS: 7.28 fatalities per billion passenger miles
COMMUTER/LONG-HAUL TRAINS: 0.43 fatalities per billion passenger miles
BUSES: 0.11 deaths per billion passenger miles
AVIATION: 0.07 deaths per billion passenger miles

Even more dangerous than driving a car, however, is driving a motorcycle: there are 212 fatalities per billion passenger miles on a motorbike, which means your mother was right — a motorcycle is a death wish on two wheels. Also surprisingly dangerous is the simple act of walking: in 2008, there were a little more than 14 deaths per billion miles walked in the U.S. And bicycling too can be risky: a 2002 study found that there were about 35 deaths per billion miles cycled.

Of course, the vast majority of those cycling and pedestrian deaths are not due to the inherent dangers of biking or walking, but rather to the carelessness of auto drivers. (In the contest of a 4,000-lb. car — the average weight of a new American automobile — vs. a 150-lb. pedestrian or cyclist, bet on the car.) But the good news is that transportation has been getting safer in general in the U.S. In 2012, an estimated 34,080 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes — a 5.3% increase over the previous year, but still a 16% decrease from the 40,716 people who died on the roads in 1994, when there were some 53 million fewer people in the country. Fatalities in aviation fell from 1,456 in 1970 to 485 in 2011, even as the number of miles flown increased by more than fivefold.

Overall the death rate for transportation in general in 2010 was just one-third the rate in 1975. As Sunday’s derailment shows — along with the nearly 90 fatal auto crashes that occur every day on average — there’s still plenty of room for improvement in transportation safety. But it’s getting from point A to point B in America has likely never been safer than it is today.

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The problem I have with these statistics is they didn't differentiate between commercial aviation and general aviation.  Commercial aviation is far safer than general aviation.  In the U.S., for the years 2002 thru 2010 (the latest numbers I could find for general aviation), there were 157 fatalities on commercial airliners.  For the same time period, there were 4956 fatalities involving general aviation aircraft, a factor 30 times more than commercial aircraft.


As a bicyclist who has crossed the U.S. solo once, I say that counting fatalities per mile traveled is not a proper comparison method. I suppose it is the standard these days but it might serve better to compare hours of travel time per mode traveled. It took me three months to make my trip, spending an average of about five hours per day on mostly two lane public roads shared by much heavier vehicles. To compare that to flying, you should compare it to three months of daily transcontinental non-stop flights. And that doesn't include the same sort of collision dangers i faced daily. Airline pilots have many eyes following their every action, all professionals. We tolerate a remarkably high national death rate for the transport convenience of self driven one to two ton vehicles in much closer proximity.


@pngracey When comparing the safety of different forms of transportation, the statistics are usually based on "passenger-miles".  And considering that about 100 people per day, every day of the year, for 65 solid years, have been killed on the nation's roads, I agree with you that our society tolerates a huge number of deaths on this country's roads, for the sake of convenience.