Sunday, August 11, 2019

Rail Crossing Safety Piece Misses on our Autoism

I know we are tilting at windmills here, but the subhed, "Accidents nearly double in five years; reasons unclear" is unnecessary mystification. The reason is right there! Cars and our autoism. We are driving more in the last five years, and even if the crash rate holds steady, the total count will rise.

Car advertising and our autoism hinder analysis
You know, rate x miles = count.

This is the coarse explanatory framework in which the other fine details should be fitted. But because we have such a stake in mystifying our autoism, we hide this.
There's no simple explanation for the increase. State transportation officials and safety advocates say a variety of factors are at play: Oregon's growing population; people's unfamiliarity with their new surroundings; and the popularity of pedestrian and bicycle travel.
Sure there are many other factors, but the biggest one is that we are driving and traveling more.

A primary reason deaths are rising is because we are driving more
via FWHA twitter
The piece also misses the role of antiquated 19th century law. The railroads successfully externalized the costs for crossing safety. The roads are private property and they offload the costs of crossing treatments, and of bridges or underpasses, to cities and other jurisdictions. "Not our problem," they seemingly say.

Trains are difficult. If it is theoretically reasonable to insist on a "twenty is plenty" policy for urban auto travel, and if it is actually possible for most crashes at 20mph to be non-fatal, even at 5mph a train cannot stop reasonably. They have so much more mass and inertia, orders of magnitude more than cars. It is unjust for car drivers to say "might makes right," but it seems impossible to get around the fact that for trains, this is unalterably true. Trains require a different set of policies and safety counter-measures.

But above all, it's our autoism and increasing driving that causes the increase in crashes involving trains.
Out of the 154 crashes over the past 10 years, 33 involved pedestrians and nine involved someone hit on a bicycle. Of those, six pedestrians and one bicyclist were in Marion County.
The piece drills into the death of Jack Rice on State and Commercial, but this may not be representative. There are many ambiguities and uncertainties about his death. Some of the other people on foot who died were also suicides, and "rail safety" by itself is not be an adequate lens for thinking about these deaths. Finally, we should remember for context that cars kill many more than trains, still.

Front pager on traffic violence in 2017


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Over on FB, a former head of ODOT Rail, and an expert herself quoted in the article, responds and here is the comment in full (though I have added paragraph breaks for clarity):

"I usually appreciate your comments for being accurate and important, but there are a few things in your post that aren't accurate.

First, suicides are not included in the statistics cited in the article, although, the reporter, in my opinion, mangled statistics, but that's another matter.

Yes, most crossing signals are initially paid for by public money, as well they should be, but railroads are obligated to pay for maintenance, weekly inspections and upgrades forever. The cost share for separated crossings is established by statute, and again the maintenance falls to the railroads. Railroads are also responsible for the crossing surface within their rights-of-way.

The article didn't mention that the bigger number of people killed or injured by trains are trespassers, all of whom are pedestrians, and no that doesn't included suicides.

The article also doesn't mention that traffic incidents have spiked generally, a function of more cars and trucks, but also a function of more distracted and irresponsible drivers, and on that I think you and I agree.

It seems to me that the "inaccurate" moments generally do not arise with the blog post, but come from the article itself, especially with the way stats were handled.

As for the burdens of maintenance and upgrades falling on the RRs, and therefore granting the RRs a "pass" on safety, we do not agree. If crashes and deaths are a cause of using the RR, then the RR should share more of the mitigation costs. These should not be so externalized.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Regarding "trespassers," there are at least two classes, maybe three, of trespassers:

- Folks simply crossing the tracks at dead-end streets because the RR and its private property create long barriers through town. This is definitely an unfair burden imposed on cities and their citizens by the RRs. The RRs cause a lot of out-of-direction travel for people on foot and on bike. The RRs should be better partners in mitigating for this.

- Teens or young people courting danger by walking along tracks. (This seems unambiguously foolish, but probably we've all done stupid stuff like this in our youths.)

- Unhoused people, for whom the traditional term "hobo," whether they are riding the rails or simply camping, seems useful in this context. (This seems like the most intractable problem and group.)