A month before the September 29 NJ Transit train crash in Hoboken Terminal, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that 35,092 people were killed on America’s roads in 2015 — a 7.2 percent increase over the previous year. That report came days after the National Safety Council released preliminary estimates of traffic deaths in the first half of 2016 showing a 9 percent increase over the previous year.
This is not to trivialize the Hoboken disaster; developments since the crash have received daily news coverage during the last three weeks, and rightfully so. People want to know what caused the crash, and it’s the duty of the investigating agencies and the media to disseminate that information.
But highway crashes, fatal or otherwise, are so common that it seems like we’ve stopped asking questions. Just about every day in southwestern Connecticut there’s at least one crash that requires closing a lane of Interstate 95 or the Merritt Parkway. Last year in New York, 1,121 people were killed in fatal crashes — three per day — and there were many more crashes where there were no deaths. In New Jersey, zero train passengers* have been killed in 2016, but as of October 20, 474 people have been killed in 449 different crashes on Garden State roads.
Are you scared to get in a car after reading this? Of course not. We’ve become desensitized by these things because they literally happen every day. If there were anything else that killed as many Americans as motor vehicles, we would probably be having a serious national debate about it. But the vast majority of Americans rely on cars for their daily transportation needs, so the response to an increase in fatalities is basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Tragedy surrounds these deaths regardless of how the people involved were traveling, but the magnitude of fear, attention and action is vastly different. Why? Because fatal train crashes and derailments are so uncommon. And because they’re so rare, they tend to attract not just more coverage, but also deeper and more personal coverage, which tends to resonate better than statistics.
People have expressed concern about getting back on NJ Transit after the Hoboken crash, just like they did after the 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx and the 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. And while we should absolutely continue to keep pressure on transit agencies and elected officials to ensure that trains are as safe as they can be, it warrants mentioning that riding the train is much safer than driving. In fact, commuting via public transit (including rail and buses) is 10 times safer than commuting by car according to a recent report from the American Public Transportation Association.
*Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, the woman killed in the crash at Hoboken Terminal last month, was standing in the station and was not a passenger on the train. An earlier version of this post said that one train passenger was killed in New Jersey so far in 2016. It has been corrected.