Last month, the United States Department of Transportation released its new National Roadway Safety Strategy, which established an ambitious new federal goal of zero traffic deaths. Getting anywhere close to that target would be a momentous achievement; around 40,000 people are killed on American roadways annually, and the death toll has been rising—sharply—in recent years.
The Department of Transportation’s strategy includes a bevy of constructive policy steps, from incentivizing safer cars to building “complete streets” that protect pedestrians and cyclists. But it doesn’t mention one seemingly intuitive option: convince people currently driving to instead take transit, which is much safer per passenger mile.
“Less cars on the street reduces exposure to crashes,” Roger Millar, the secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, told me. As a result, “overall casualties should be less.”
I asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about that possibility when I interviewed him in January about roadway safety. “I think that the mode shifting toward transit is something that people usually think about in the climate context,” he replied. “But there is also a less well-known safety benefit that we do need to take seriously.”
Unfortunately, that benefit goes unmentioned in his agency’s plan. To be fair to the Department of Transportation, it isn’t often highlighted in other safety resources either; transportation officials and even many safety advocates generally assume people will keep traveling the way they are now. That’s a missed opportunity, because using policy to nudge travelers toward transit and away from driving can reduce fatalities—especially if policymakers focus on the car trips most likely to end in a crash.
“I’ve seen barely any discussion about shifting modes to save lives,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, making little effort to hide her frustration. “It’s not been a focus at USDOT, nor at state DOTs, and certainly not at transit agencies themselves. But as someone who rides transit every single day, I know I am less likely to get into a crash, just by getting on that train.”
The numbers back her up. Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage examined American crash data over a decade, concluding that 7.3 people died in a car or truck for every billion passenger miles, 30 times the risk on urban rail and 66 times the risk aboard a bus. (If you’re wondering, motorcycles are by far the riskiest vehicles of all, while airplane travel is the safest.)
There are myriad reasons why riding transit is generally safer than driving a car. Trains (and sometimes buses) receive dedicated right of way, limiting potential collisions. Compared with cars, trains and buses are also quite heavy—“you’re basically in a steel suit,” Savage said—offering additional protection to occupants. The relatively slow speed of urban buses is another factor. “When something bad happens, it’s usually not that bad,” Savage said.
And then there is the person behind the wheel (or in the conductor booth). “The major safety difference between the modes is probably the operators,” wrote Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an email. Compared with cars, transit “eliminates many dangerous [drivers], such as teenagers and people over 80. Operators also are less prone to text, drive drunk, and the like.” By implication, shifting particularly risky car trips to transit can produce outsize safety benefits. “A drunk deciding to take subway service when they extend it into the evening—that’s undeniably good,” said Savage.
That said, Savage cautions that crash data can conceal certain risks, making a car-to-transit comparison not quite apples-to-apples. “Transit is not door-to-door, so what you do to get to and from a station will be important.” Urban planners call these journeys the “first mile and last mile” of transit access. “If you’re in a place like Houston, where to get to transit you’ve got to cross a four-lane arterial with deficient sidewalks, that’s risky,” Savage said. Transit safety discussions typically revolve around agencies’ vehicles and operations, but that may be shortsighted. “Getting people out of their cars to walk along unprotected highways—not a good idea,” cautioned Washington state DOT’s Millar. Safe street infrastructure is vital for transit riders, in addition to those traveling entirely by bike or on foot.
Even with that caveat, transit is generally far safer than driving. “Less driving is clearly correlated with lower fatalities,” wrote Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban planning at Virginia Tech, in an email. “Removing cars and trucks greatly reduces fatalities.” Ken Kolosh, the statistics manager of the nonprofit National Safety Council, agreed: “Mathematically, without question, moving from driving towards transit would be good not only for the environment, but for safety.” (Disclosure: I have done advisory work with NSC.)
The European experience seems to support such claims: London’s congestion charge, which nudged people away from driving, was found to reduce road fatalities. Despite having a population one-third larger than the United States, the transit-rich European Union has less than half as many traffic deaths per year. “I think mode shift explains part of it,” said Savage, noting that Europeans also often drive slower in urban areas.
Despite the seemingly lifesaving benefits of pushing drivers toward transit, safety advocates seldom emphasize it. “It’s a huge gap in what I’ve seen in Vision Zero,” said Tara Goddard, an assistant professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University, referring to a global effort to entirely eliminate traffic fatalities. “People from the advocacy side come in because of a car-involved incident. They are thinking about the danger of vehicles, rather than the idea of shifting.”
Homendy, the NTSB chair, also blames the tunnel vision of government agencies, pointing to the Department of Transportation’s branches that are solely focused on highways, transit, and trucking. The Federal Transit Administration does have a dedicated safety webpage, but it is a resource for transit agencies themselves, ignoring the relative safety of bus and train trips.(On the other extreme, an early 20th century streetcar sign informed passengers: “Death Rides The Highways But You Are Safe in The Trolley Car.”)
“It’s not just USDOT,” Homendy says. “It’s the states too, where everything is siloed rather than comprehensive.” As a result, policies that could save lives by shifting travel decisions—like expanding late-night transit service or eliminating weekend free parking—are seldom sold as such.
The media, too, seldom notes how dangerous driving is compared with other modes. As a result, the public is left to draw its own conclusions about risk. That’s a problem, because ingrained cognitive biases can lead us to make false assumptions.
Studies show that people typically feel safer in vehicles they control compared with those they cannot (i.e., a car compared with a bus or train). Worse, the rare transit crash is often a top media story, while daily car collisions barely register. “It’s baked into how we talk about crashes,” says Millar. “We had an Amtrak train crash here, three people died, and it was international news. That same week 10 people died on highways in this state—and it was the same the week before that, and the week before that.”
According to psychology’s “availability heuristic,” the intense attention paid to exceedingly rare plane or train crashes can lead us to unconsciously exaggerate their frequency, while the media’s shrug at car crashes causes us to discount the dangers of driving. One extreme example: A study found that the shift away from flying toward driving in the aftermath of 9/11 led to over 2,000 additional traffic deaths in the United States.
With our perceptions of roadway safety so skewed, making rational choices is difficult—but it isn’t impossible. In D.C., a Metrorail derailment last October didn’t cause any injuries, but it was still a major media event. Rushing to the scene, local news channel ABC 7 interviewed a passenger who had evacuated the train.
“Would you ever take Metro again?” asked a reporter.
“Yeah, I’ll take it for sure,” replied the woman, with remarkable equanimity. “It’s still convenient. How many times are there car accidents and people still drive?”