Two years ago, two trains on Metro’s red line collided killing nine people in DC. In response to this tragic accident, Metro is spending $1 billion to improve the system’s safety. WMATA’s interim General Manager told the Washington Post:
“The system is absolutely safer than it was a year ago,” said Sarles, who was brought in on an interim basis in spring 2010. “We’ve adopted an attitude of we’re going to change the safety culture to one that’s going to prevent accidents.”
Despite this accident, traveling by Metro is much safer than traveling by car in the DC region. The Coalition for Smarter Growth provides data on injuries and deaths on Metro compared to driving in DC and demonstrates that while eight passengers were killed on Metro from 2003-2009, 2,057 people died in car accidents from 2003-2008 in the DMV area.
Per passenger vehicle mile fatalities are not available for the DC region, which would allow us to see these numbers in context. However, nationwide, heavy rail transit (Metro) averages 0.8 deaths per billion passenger miles compared to 7 for passenger vehicles, according to the same study.
Last week, Senator Barbara Mikulski reintroduced the National Metro Safety Act last week which would require increased national regulations for all transit systems that operate on heavy rail. Figuring out how to pay for these safety measures would presumably be left up to localities, but at least some of the costs will likely be met through increased fares. At the margin, this will lead some riders to choose the more dangerous travel option of driving, perversely decreasing public safety.
I’m not suggesting that Metro’s safety improvements are not money well-spent, but providing a guarantee of safety on public transportation would be infinitely expensive. In a world of finite resources, risks to human life cannot be eliminated. Regulators who require a given safety level on public transport must realize that the increase in costs will lead some riders to choose driving over public transit, increasing the risk of fatalities.