USDOT to Shut Down Nation’s Roads, Citing Safety Concerns

Crossposted from City Observatory.

WASHINGTON, DC – Citing safety concerns, today Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced he was contemplating the closure of roads to all private vehicles in nearly every city in the country until he could assure the nation’s drivers that they would be safe behind the wheel.

The announcement comes on the heels of comments by Secretary Foxx that the Department of Transportation may shut down the Washington Metro heavy rail system because of ongoing safety issues.

Since 2009, 14 Metro riders and employees have died in collisions, derailings, and other incidents. On an annual basis, that translates to about 0.48 fatalities per 100,000 weekday riders.*

However, Secretary Foxx noted that this is exceeded by the fatality rate of car crashes in every single American metropolitan area for which data was compiled in a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In San Francisco, 3.75 people died in automobile crashes per 100,000 residents in 2014, a rate 7.8 times higher than the fatality rate on Metro. In Raleigh, NC, the automobile crash fatality rate was 7.50 per 100,000, or about 15.6 times higher than the fatality rate on Metro. And in Dallas, the automobile crash fatality rate was 12.02 per 100,000, or about 25.0 times higher than the fatality rate on Metro.

A partial list of other cities in which Secretary Foxx is threatening to shut down automobile traffic includes:Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 10.28.38 AM

Each year, more than 30,000 Americans die in automobile crashes, at a rate higher than nearly every other industrialized nation, even accounting for higher vehicle miles traveled rates.

“This carnage is unacceptable,” the Secretary said. “Until we can assure America’s drivers and pedestrians that they are no more likely to die on the road than they are on the most dysfunctional heavy rail system in the country—a feat that, in many cities, will require a 90 to 95 percent reduction in road fatalities—I cannot in good conscience allow a single motor vehicle to menace our cities.”

*Methodology and sourcing: Road fatality rates are taken from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. WMATA Metro fatality rates are from news reports on fatalities since 2009; the denominator is half of the average weekday ridership from the most recent APTA ridership report, from Q4 of 2015. (We divided total ridership in half to estimate the total number of individual riders taking two trips per day.) This is designed to create a relatively high fatality rate for WMATA—making a relatively small denominator, of only the number of people who use WMATA on a daily basis—compared to the road crash fatality rate, which uses a relatively large denominator, the total number of people living in a metropolitan area.

10 thoughts on USDOT to Shut Down Nation’s Roads, Citing Safety Concerns

  1. Very well said! The same can be applied to railroad and airplane accidents.

    The media, government agencies, and human nature have an unfortunate instinct to focus on “spectacular” accidents, rather than everyday humdrum fatalities and critical injuries which are statistically much more dangerous.

  2. I’m reminded of the captain of an airliner which arrived early and had to wait for a boarding gate to open. He got on the PA and said, “We’ll be at the gate in a few minutes. While we’re waiting I’d like to thank you for choosing our airline and remind you that you’re about to start the most dangerous part of your journey–going to your destination or your home on the streets and highways of this city. When you’re driving, please fasten your seat belt and drive defensively. We want to see you again.”

  3. If Foxx really wants to lower the death rate he will have to take on the right foot braking lobby. Right foot braking errors are responsible for 30,000 deaths, millions of injuries and billions in losses. The right foot braking epidemic is alive and well.

  4. Before we get too excited about this analogy, I think there’s a couple of things we should keep in mind.

    The first is that a serious accident on a subway train has the potential to endanger many more lives than a single serious accident on the road. Unless it’s something freakishly rare like an 18 car pile-up or a bus exploding, a serious auto accident will usually only endanger no more than a handful of people. However, a subway train derailing or a fire in a subway tunnel holds the risk of killing a dozen people or more in an instant and critically injuring many more. Yes, the death toll on the roads is higher in the aggregate, but if you’re trying to prevent accidents then there’s more pressure to prevent a subway accident, because the stakes are even higher if something goes seriously wrong.

    The second is the matter of responsibility. When an accident happens on the roads, it’s almost always the individual actors involved in the accident who are at fault. But an accident like the ones DC Metro have been experiencing lately is the fault of the various bureaucracies that are responsible for maintaining the system and keeping it in good shape, something that they’ve obviously been failing at. So yes, there’s more pressure on the USDOT to prevent accidents on the DC Metro, because they’re much more likely to be held accountable in some way if something goes terribly wrong.

    Now to be clear, none of this is meant as an endorsement one way or the other on the decision to close the DC Metro. I actually agree quite a bit with the sentiment behind this piece, if not necessarily the specific argument. I just think the analogy needs a little work.

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