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Public Transportation Safety: Is Mass Transit Actually Safer than Driving?

When it comes to transportation, society as a whole tends to rely more on myths and assumptions than actual fact-based conclusions. Take, for example, the issue of public transportation. For many years, the media and various transportation industry spokespeople have echoed a singular narrative: that mass transit options are inherently riskier than driving an automobile. While that may sound like an eminently reasonable conclusion to hold – after all, if a bus crashes there is a higher risk of mass injury than if a single car crashes, it is also reasonable to question that narrative. So, if mass transit really more dangerous than driving a car or truck – or could it be that reliance on buses and other public transportation vehicles is actually safer than driving?

Mobile Danger Everywhere

Most experts acknowledge that being a driver or passenger in any sort of motorized vehicle is the single riskiest thing that any American does on a regular basis. Any times you are driving or riding in a car, bus, motorcycle, or other form of transportation, your chance of suffering injury is increased and your life is potentially at risk. In fact, the CDC reported that transportation-related accidents made up 31.9% of all accident deaths in 2010.

When you dig deeper into those numbers, however, a clearer picture emerges of just how dangerous different modes of transportation can be. The following statistics from the United States Department of Transportation are illustrative of the disparity in the relative degree of risk posed by some of the more common public transportation modes:

  • In 2006, there were a total of more than 4.3 million passenger car crashes in the United States and more than 100,000 crashes involving motorcycles.
  • By comparison, there were only 51, 554 bus crashes in that same year, and fewer than 11,000 railroad-related crashes.
  • According to one recent study from the Journal of Public Transportation, the risks associated with traveling by car or truck are roughly 60 times greater than travel by public transportation on a bus!

The numbers don’t lie. The fact is that public transportation safety improvements over the last few decades have enabled buses, railways and other forms of mass transit to become a far safer way to travel than conventional automobiles, motorcycles, and trucks.

Mass Transit Still Lags Behind Car Ownership and Usage

Despite those numbers, one stubborn fact is clear: Americans show little sign of losing their love affair with the automobile any time soon. While other countries around the world continue to focus energy and money on further developing their mass transit infrastructure, the average American is intent on driving.

Much of that can be attributed to the sheer size of the United States, of course, and the need for many Americans to travel 20 miles or more to work on a daily basis. After all, the US Census Bureau reports that the average commuter travel time for American workers is 50 minutes each day. And with much of the country inadequately served by public transportation, it is only natural that American citizens would choose to rely on their own vehicles to get back and forth.

In places like Texas, that situation is exacerbated even more by the large number of people who live in the suburbs around the five most populous of the state’s cities, choosing to commute to jobs in those cities each day. According to census data published by the Texas Tribune, more than half of those suburban workers drove to work in the larger cities in 2013.

Winds of Change?

Despite the seemingly intractable hold that automobiles have on the American psyche, there are some signs that the preferred transportation mode for the country may be gradually changing. The Frontier Group recently produced a report that suggests that Millennials seem to be less interested in owning or driving vehicles than previous generations. That, coupled with the ever-rising costs associated with private transport, has helped to initiate a new interest in the benefits of public mass transit options.

The American Public Transportation Association noted in 2014 that Americans had taken almost 11 billion trips that year using buses, streetcars, and subways. That was the highest level of usage seen since the auto industry exploded in size back in 1956, and was part of a trend that began in the wake of high gas prices right before the 2008 financial industry meltdown.

With many in government focused on reducing America’s carbon footprint and many younger Americans seeing renewed benefit in convenient, affordable public transport options, it is beginning to look as though mass transit is once again gaining popularity and respectability. The challenge for policymakers will be to ensure that public transportation safety remains a top priority.

How Safe is Safe?

As we’ve already documented, public mass transit has been consistently proven to be safer than driving or riding along in a car or truck. Despite that positive safety record, the media often gives far greater attention to the relatively few high-profile bus and train crashes that occur than they provide all but the most severe automobile disasters. Policymakers are aware of this irrational focus on public transportation, and continually work to improve mass transit safety.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) introduced new proposals in February of this year that are designed to focus even more attention on this safety issue. These proposed regulations would require an annual review of a new safety management system that would overhaul everything from risk management to emergency preparation and rapid response capabilities. The FTA actions were undertaken in response to Congressional requirements imposed by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

The hope of many experts is that Americans will come to support even more public transit projects once they learn more about its overall record of safety and efficiency. There is little reason to believe that the American fascination with the automobile will be ending any time soon. However, as more people discover the truth about public transportation safety and younger generations grow up with an appreciation for mass transit options, cars and trucks may one day seem far less necessary than they are today.