Every Traffic Death Should Be Investigated Like the Metro-North Crash

The buzzing from the helicopters began before 8 a.m. yesterday and did not stop until after dark. They were back before dawn this morning, and at this writing continue to come and go. I live within sight of Sunday’s Metro-North crash, the first incident to result in passenger fatalities in the railroad’s 30-year history.

The number of people injured in the Metro-North crash is a little more than the number of pedestrians and cyclists injured by motorists in New York City every day. Photo: AP via New York Times
Photo: AP via NYT

The toll from yesterday’s derailment was tremendous and awful: four people dead and 60 injured, 11 of them critically. As helicopters hovered above, an army of reporters converged at the scene. Governor Cuomo arrived well before noon. Teams of federal investigators were summoned. The train’s “black box” was recovered. Pictures and video of the wrecked train were streamed by every major news outlet in the city, and were broadcast nationwide. By day’s end there were lengthy stories from the dailies, and coverage will no doubt continue at least until the cause of the crash is known.

It’s a fitting response to a preventable crash that killed several people. What’s troubling is that the far more pervasive source of violence in our transportation system — crashes involving motor vehicles — receives such scant attention from investigators and the press in comparison.

Fatal and injurious traffic crashes happen on a scale that dwarfs train wrecks. But police investigations are kept out of view of the public, so for any given crash, there’s almost no way to tell what contributed to it and who is culpable. The Metro-North crash scene was preserved for almost an entire day; a fatal car crash is usually cleaned up as soon as possible — assuming the site is protected at all — and traffic resumes. Unless drugs or alcohol are involved, police usually call it an accident, blame the victim, and declare “case closed.”

Coverage of traffic fatalities tends to reflect the cursory attention from police investigators. While the Times, for example, assigned a cadre of reporters to the Metro-North story, which has stayed above the fold on the paper’s web site, it devoted just three paragraphs to the deaths of the three pedestrians and a cyclist who were killed by city motorists in a span of 30 minutes on the day before Thanksgiving.

At 5 p.m. last Wednesday, 54-year-old Pedro Lopez was riding a bike in Maspeth when he was hit by the driver of a commercial truck. The driver fled the scene. At 5:15, Stella Huang, 88, was run over by the driver of a Con Ed truck at 16th Street and Avenue C in Manhattan. About 15 minutes later, a man in a Honda minivan hit and killed Marion Anderson, 47, and Lizette Serrano, 60, as they crossed Forest Hill Road in Staten Island.

An Advance story about Serrano noted that by Friday NYPD had wrapped up its investigation. The driver in the Staten Island crash was cited for failure to provide insurance information but was not charged for killing two people.

Motorists killed at least two other people in the city last week: Buddhi Thapa, struck Tuesday on the Upper East Side by a driver in a Range Rover SUV; and Kalyanarat Ranasinghe, 71, a traffic agent who was hit by a truck driver in Midtown Saturday. In both cases, the driver was immediately cleared of wrongdoing by NYPD.

Ranasinghe’s job entailed directing traffic, and his death got a little more attention than most traffic fatalities. Here are two paragraphs from a Times story filed the day of the crash:

A traffic enforcement agent was struck and killed by an industrial street-cleaning truck amid throngs of holiday shoppers in Midtown Manhattan on Saturday in what officials said was most likely an accident.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who arrived on the scene about an hour after Mr. Ranasinghe was hit, said it appeared to have been an accident. “It’s a dangerous job, and they don’t make a lot of money,” he said of traffic enforcement agents.

Media outlets including the Times described the Metro-North crash as an “accident,” but they also presumed a precipitating factor — that something, be it human error or mechanical malfunction, caused the train to derail. By contrast, the response to traffic collisions that do not involve alcohol — and some that do — assumes that the “accident” is the cause.

Imagine Governor Cuomo standing amid the wreckage yesterday saying, “It looks like this was just an accident.” Or the NTSB closing its investigation within a few hours and declaring the deaths of four people a blameless, freak occurrence. Of course this is absurd, but it is the norm when it comes to deaths and injuries caused by drivers.

It will take some time to determine exactly what caused the Metro-North crash. But there is no doubt that after a thorough investigation, the relevant agencies will tell the public how this deadly derailment unfolded and what could have prevented it. Whether the cause was equipment failure or human error, it is likely that steps will be taken to prevent another incident. Equipment upgrades, revised regulations or protocols, disciplining of employees — these actions will be expected, as would criminal charges, if warranted.

The number of people injured in the Metro-North crash is a little higher than the number of pedestrians and cyclists injured by motorists in New York City on an average day. Yet the six deaths inflicted by city drivers in the past week will not get the sustained attention of investigators, electeds, or the media. The dailies have already moved on. The governor will not wonder aloud if speed or operator error was a factor in the crashes that took these six lives. NYPD will not face pressure from major media to conduct thorough investigations, and the department will not be expected to release the results of its investigations to the public.

Crashes like the Metro-North derailment are blessedly rare, and they get so much attention in part because they are so unusual. Motor vehicle violence is the much more common — and graver — public safety threat, but until traffic crashes receive commensurate concern from investigators, elected officials, and the press, people will continue to be harmed by motorists every day, and the dead and injured will be treated as second-class victims.

  • I made the point in my coverage (for the Financial Times) of the rail crash that the four deaths, while tragic, compared with 274 on New York City’s streets last year.

    As for the point about the investigation, I made exactly that point in a blogpost recently. I used to read British rail safety investigations and I was struck by their thoroughness in investigating not only fatalities and crashes involving serious property damage but also incidents where the NYPD would believe that nothing had really happened but the incident showed the nature of a risk in the system. I compared the investigation of a UK rail incident where a driver nodded off and let a train slide backwards (harmlessly) with the police investigation of my being knocked off my bike in London in 2009. The post is here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-crash-on-brixton-road-backsliding-on.html

    There’s inevitable interest in train crashes because they have the potential to be serious, multiple-casualty events. The oil train crash in Quebec in July killed 47 people, for example. But you’re right that investigations of car crashes fall way short of the standards needed.

  • I don’t remember which news outlet I saw this at, but the story of this crash closed with a quote from an eyewitness who told the reporter “I’m so glad I have a car.”

  • millerstephen

    @YokotaFritz:disqus That would be this piece, from the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/nyregion/rumbling-and-then-screams-and-smoke-rising.html

  • Nate (SLC)

    Americans worship cars: symbols of power, status, wealth, freedom, etc.

    They don’t worship trains … or airplanes … or bicycles.

    To a certain extent we’ve also become hardened to the automobile casualty list. Somebody got killed by a car? So what else is new?

  • Alex

    People freak out about rare events like train and airliner crashes but are desensitized to car crashes precisely because they are not rare. But I feel like fatal car crashes are juuuust rare enough that people aren’t forced to recognize the true danger.

  • qrt145

    He wasn’t just an eyewitness, but one of the people in the train. I can hardly fault him for feeling that way, having just survived a train crash, even if we know that statistically cars are more dangerous.

  • qrt145

    Possibly due to constant editing of the NYT’s website, I can’t find that quote in the article you linked to. But I found a very similar one here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/nyregion/metro-north-derailment.html?pagewanted=all

    I’ll post a longer quote for context and in case they change it again. 😉

    Mr. Russell, who was in the third car from the back, said the train tipped and slid along “like a vacuum cleaner” as it came off the tracks, with gravel and dirt pouring in as the windows shattered. He gripped his seat as the train rolled over.

    “You had to hold the chair so you didn’t fall out,” he said.

    Mr. Russell said he helped other passengers before climbing out into a field of broken glass and debris. He was taken to Jacobi Medical Center, where he was treated for back pain and released. He said he was rethinking his routine.

    “You think you’re safe on the train,” he said. “I know I’m going to be taking a car for a while.”

  • I was thinking of Michael Keaveny, who is reported to live in an apartment near the tracks. I found the quote in WaPo:


    Keaveney said he witnessed the train flip over in that accident. “It makes me grateful that I have a car,” he said.

    Fair enough that Joe Average on the street has a visceral reaction to the wreckage. I ride a bus every day. A few times each year, my fellow passengers and I pass by a horrendous crash on the highway. Somebody always remarks, “That’s why I ride the bus.” The really bad car wrecks will make the local paper, but remarks about the safety of public transportation never make it to the evening news. If a bus rider were ever quoted along those lines, he would be criticized as being needlessly flippant and insensitive to the victims.

  • JoshNY

    Hear, hear.

  • Joe R.

    Preliminary investigation shows the train entered the 30 mph curve at 82 mph. Whether this was the result of human error or a mechanical malfunction remains to be determined.


  • Sheryl Yvette

    As a cyclist and pedestrian who sees dangerous driving every day, I couldn’t agree more. One thing I haven’t heard mentioned in this story – and am surprised – is that there was no mention of drug testing of the operator or taking their cell phone to review activity prior to the incident. I think both should be mandatory in all crashes, regardless of vehicle.

  • andrelot

    I think the comparison is not entirely appropriate. Derailments are not supposed to happen, period. So when they do, lengthy investigations go on covering the many issues and factors that might have caused it.

    Striking of pedestrians or vehicles crossing tracks, however, even if with fatal consequences, hardly entails a lengthy investigation if it becomes clear, soon, that the rail ROW was intruded by someone (vehicle driver or pedestrians) who disrespected the signs and/or trespassed on rail tracks.

  • Andrew

    Cars are not supposed to hit pedestrians either.

  • Todd F.

    Today, the auto industry has the technology to greatly reduce pedestrian/cyclist deaths (crash avoidance, lane departure alerts, night vision, driver sleep detection, etc) but without govt regulations and consumer demand, we won’t see a change.

    There is hope, though. Within the next 10 years, we’ll see the rise of self-driving cars — which includes all of these great technologies AND removes the biggest factor in motorist/ped interactions: the nut behind the wheel.

  • Ian Turner

    Are you sure about that?

  • Jonathan

    Brad, be careful what you wish for!

    A safety investigation like the one the NTSB is conducting is not criminal in nature. Perhaps in a follow up post Streetsblog could price out the cost of conducting such an investigation for each traffic crash, and estimate what would be learned from each one.

    The great benefit of safety investigations in the contexts of rail
    crashes is that the rail authority maintains the tracks, maintains the
    rolling stock, and employs the operators. So the authority can
    unilaterally implement recommendations in all three of these areas.
    Traffic crashes have a more diffuse environment.

    Assuming NYC DOT does the investigations you call for, the recommendations that they are going to make THAT WILL BE ENACTED will be recommendations for street safety. We can look forward to more fences and more restrictions on pedestrians and bicyclists “for their own safety,” because these are the measures that DOT can implement unilaterally.

  • wkgreen

    There is, I think, an issue of control here that makes the possibility of train (and plane) crashes scarier. When we hit the highway there is the false sense that nothing will happen to us because WE are behind the wheel; therefore, we control our own destiny. We see the road ahead of us and we “know” how fast we should be going, when to turn, what obstacles to get around, etc. When that control is given over to a stranger in the form of a train conductor or bus driver or pilot and whatever unknown environment that they happen to be operating under then we are passively giving responsibility for our safety over to a system which, in this case, failed. It rarely occurs to us that the system still fails much less often than we do. It’s a very American way of thinking.

  • andrelot

    Yes, but what is the percentage of pedestrian hits that happens as a result of some equipment or system failure – such as traffic light that was green for both a car and a crossing pedestrian at the same time, or a car whose steering system failed etc.

    Almost all pedestrian hits are the result of either a clear driving rule violation (such as a driver not stopping at a designated crossing), gross negligence of driver (texting or drunk) or ROW intrusion by pedestrian (jaywalking or crossing roads where not allowed to or without awareness of vehicular traffic) making him/her the culprit for being hit.

  • andrelot

    I think once the first results on traffic injuries and death come out, there will be a huge push to make city traffic mostly or completely automated in a relatively short period of time (say, one decade). Driverless cars have the potential to slash traffic accidents to a tiny fraction of the present numbers, with obvious benefits (health, economic etc).

  • BB

    The problem with America is they are the jury of peers. They see nothing wrong with killing 95 people a day.
    Our leaders see nothing wrong with killing people.

    A small fraction of people understand.

    Welcome to the land of the cowards and dead people.

  • JoshNY

    Sure, derailments (that is, a train leaving the area in which it’s supposed to operate) aren’t supposed to happen, and by and large don’t happen when a train is operated correctly. If you want an apples-to-apples comparison, cars going up onto the sidewalk (that is, a car leaving the area in which it’s supposed to operate) isn’t supposed to happen either, and by and large doesn’t happen when a car is operated correctly. So where are the politicians grandstanding about pedestrians getting run over on the sidewalk?

  • Steve Faust

    Railroad track curves and roadways both have hard civil engineering limits beyond which a train or car WILL go off the tracks or the road. These are abbreviated as Civil Limits, the maximum design speed for the curve, which is a safe bit below the speed where a train will derail. For roadways, ice or oil can severely lower the safe speed, while trains generally stay on the rails regardless of weather.

    Derailing can occur due to the wheels climbing over the
    track, or by the side force of the train literally overturning the rail,
    ripping it loose from the ties.

    This “30 MPH curve” would be both safe and comfortable for passengers – the tilt of the train. There is leeway – maybe up to 40 or 50 – I’m guessing here, before derailing, but certainly would not be safe at 80 MPH.

    So derailment will always happen beyond the design speed. It’s a combination of human training and hardware engineering to keep the train from ever exceeding this civil speed limit.

  • Steve Faust

    But will pedestrians and cyclists have to be instrumented to interface with the smart cars?

    Can’t leave home without your Smart Shoes or Smart Helmet?

  • Steve Faust

    Where is the NYPD investigation of the operator in your thoughts?

    Yes, DOT has been implementing improved engineering – which is DOT’s mandated mission, but who is doing the education and enforcement role? Education and enforcement are the Police Department’s mission, and should be aided by the school system teaching pedestrian, bicycle and driver education from kindergarten onward.

    “There ought to be a law!”
    There are laws on the books the NYPD aggressively ignores, and there is even a state education law that bicycle safety shall be taught in elementary schools that every school district in the state has been violating for years.

    Bring on the investigations into the full causes of all crashes, and investigations into charges of deliberate near misses as well, and we will finally collect enough information to make a serious dent in the toll of death and destruction on the streets.

  • Jonathan R

    “The MISSION of the New York City Police
    Department is to enhance the quality of life in our City by working in
    partnership with the community and in accordance with constitutional
    rights to enforce the laws, preserve the peace, reduce fear, and provide
    for a safe environment.”
    Every other commenter on Streetsblog thinks the police are mouth-breathers in blue uniforms, so how can it be we ask them to take care of this peripheral duty?

    What are we going to learn from safety investigations? Do we need a new safety bureau to tell us that operator error is responsible for 95% of all auto crashes?

  • I’m sure it’s true that people worry about air and rail safety disproportionately partly because they feel they have no control over what happens, while they do when in a car. It is also undoubtedly true that the standard of a person’s driving affects how likely s/he is to be in a crash. Someone who consistently speeds or drives after drinking is more likely to be in a crash. So, while people overestimate the extent of their control, there is an element of truth in the sense that a driver controls his or her own destiny.

    However, from a public policy point of view, I think the main reason to worry more about rail and air safety is the potential for rail and air crashes to be catastrophic, killing scores or hundreds of people. The apt comparison is probably the difference between how a conventional and a nuclear power station are regulated. Nuclear power stations are generally, I think, less dangerous for employees than conventional, coal-burning ones, where there are many moving parts and extreme heat. But the nuclear power station still needs to be more closely regulated because it has the potential if mismanaged to kill thousands of people in one go.

  • Canonchet

    Good, smart, sober and quick reaction piece – thanks. Hope it is widely read.

  • Rabi Abonour

    The reality of American sprawl is that most people outside of transit-rich cities need to drive, or at least think they do. It seems like there’s probably cognitive dissonance at work – people minimize the risk of driving so that they can comfortably continue to drive.

    If you live out in the suburbs you can think that driving is immensely dangerous, but that doesn’t change the fact that you need a car to get to work.

  • Andrew

    Yet the cab driver who intended to kill a bicyclist but instead cut off the leg of a tourist on the sidewalk is still driving a cab. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the cab driver was at fault, but the DA apparently disagreed. Meanwhile, every driver sees that there’s no penalty for striking pedestrians on the sidewalk or for attempting to kill bicyclists.

  • Joe R.

    I think it’s not so much an issue of someone else being in control, but rather the end result if something goes wrong. The vast majority of plane crashes are totally unsurvivable. The typical end result of a mishap is you end up as a scattered collection of body parts. I think that’s why large numbers of the general public (and myself) won’t get on a plane regardless of what the safety statistics say. Most car or train crashes are survivable. In fact, the vast majority result in few or no injuries. Trains and cars are designed to some extent to protect their occupants in crashes. Planes can’t be due to the much higher speeds and much lighter construction. If the fuselage doesn’t remain intact then all bets are off.

    Given the choice between a very low probability but very high impact event, versus an event with somewhat higher probability but much lower potential impact, I’ll choose the latter. Here we don’t even have to choose. The fact is trains are actually the safest way to get around if modern safety systems are installed. And if something does go wrong, there’s still a very good chance you’ll survive.

  • Joe R.

    I doubt it. By the time self-driven cars are the norm, sensor technology and AI will have improved to the point that cars can easily detect and avoid cyclists or pedestrians. We probably won’t even need traffic lights to cross busy streets any more. As you’re moving from the sidewalk into the crosswalk, any vehicles within a block or so will detect that, and yield to you. Same thing with cyclists approaching an intersection.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve often said that without government safety mandates it’s likely cars wouldn’t even have brakes, much less seat belts, air bags, etc. The auto industry has a long history of not adding safety features unless it’s forced to. They claim the rationale is because people are willing to pay extra for “features” like GPS but not for safety.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve seen traffic signals green in both directions a few times in my life. It’s a rare malfunction, but it does occur.

  • Joe R.

    Typically railway curve speed limits are set based on the load with the highest center of gravity (i.e. freight). In some cases there are different limits for freight and passenger trains on the same curve. Margins of safety vary widely, but in general there is usually at least a 10 mph leeway. There is often far more leeway than that, particularly in cases where the limit on the curve exists primarily for noise abatement. In any case, given how tight this curve was it’s safe to say speed caused the derailment. Indeed, 82 mph is 12 mph over the line speed on straight track in this area.

  • Ian Turner

    Um, the probability isn’t “somewhat” higher, it’s much, much higher.

  • Ian Turner

    Extending the analogy, the conventional power plant’s emissions are also likely to kill far more people on average than the nuclear plant’s emissions, though as you note it’s unlikely for a coal plant to kill hundreds of thousands at once. (It may kill tens of thousands, but slowly).

  • Joe R.

    If you’re talking about car travel versus plane travel, yes. I don’t consider cars a particularly good or safe way to travel although I’ll occasionally ride in one. I much prefer rail or bike. Both are statistically safer than car travel.

  • Ian Turner

    Sounds pretty handwavy to me. Does that mean all you need to do in order to slow traffic down to a crawl is to stand somewhere in the vicinity of a roadway?

  • Ian Turner

    Airbags were available in cars long before they were mandatory. But only in higher-end cars, or as an option. The thing manufacturers will not do without a mandate (regulatory or tortious) is introduce safety features to protect those outside the car.

  • qrt145

    Also consider that many people are more afraid of riding on a plane than in a taxi. They control neither. Maybe the difference is that they understand the taxi better. Or more likely it’s just that they think that in the event of a taxi crash, they have a good chance of surviving, while a plane crash is almost always fatal.

  • Joe R.

    I think it’s the latter. I only flew once, but I was keenly aware that if something went wrong, I would have very little chance of coming out alive. On the other hand, I was in three car collisions as a passenger. I was only slightly injured once. Another factor is that planes aren’t inherently safe. They depend upon both operator control AND mechanical devices for their safety. A failure of either often means near certain death. Wheeled vehicles don’t have this drawback. Even if multiple failures occur, they’ll eventually stop moving, frequently with a minimal amount of harm.

  • fkg

    In a lot of cities you have to drive because there are no sidewalks in the suburbs and you can’t live in the city where you work and currently drive to and where there are sidewalks because you bought the big house in the suburbs to get away from the black people but now the black people are less scary because hipsters pushed some of them out but you’re stuck because you’re mortgage is underwater.

  • “Most car or train crashes are survivable”. True. I ran the numbers for Chicago for 2009-2012 and found that 11.26% of car crashes (with other cars, bicyclists, or pedestrians) result in an injury and 0.07% result in a death.

    “Given the choice between a very low probability but very high impact event, versus an event with somewhat higher probability but much lower potential impact, I’ll choose the latter.” Word.

    Still too many people are dying. And the probability that someone walking or bicycling are injured or die in a car crash is much higher than all people as a whole, and all car occupants.

  • trainrex

    Bob, Do another story on this particular derailment and the “274” after reading (or re-reading) Chapter 7 of Gladwell’s “Outliers”.

    multiple-casualty events can have up to five potential threat events to occur in sequence and produce a catastrophe.


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