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Safety: A Point Everyone's Missing In The Public Transportation Debate

Safety: A Point Everyone's Missing In The Public Transportation Debate

Floridians, particularly those in the Tampa Bay area, have heard a lot about Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of federal money for a bullet train between Orlando and Tampa. Scott cited the potential cost to Florida in rejecting the money. His opponents, on the other hand, have said the death of the project will prevent jobs from being created in the local economy.

What almost never gets mentioned in public transportation debates like this one is safety. In fact, I haven’t heard one word about this subject in the entire bullet train discussion. But as a lawyer who regularly see the cost of car accidents in death, injury, and property damage, I think it’s worth considering.

The first point is that motor vehicle travel is dangerous compared to other forms of transportation. In fact, it is the most dangerous thing most of us do in our daily lives. As I reported in a previous post (see “New Study Shows Staggering Costs of Car Accidents”), the cost of motor vehicle accidents in the United States each year is more than $99 billion. The U.S. Supreme Court has lamented “the slaughter on the Highways of this Nation” which “exceeds the death toll of all our wars.”

Conversely, there is no question that train travel is much safer than travel by automobile. While comparisons in the United States may not work because so few Americans ride the rails, comparisons from countries with extensive train travel are revealing. Great Britain, for example, has a well-developed and often-used rail network. Train travel there is 25-times safer than auto travel.

The dangers of driving while texting, intoxicated, or fatigued are well-known. While people should never do those things while driving, we know some do. So it’s worth pointing out that those behaviors are not at all dangerous when one is taking a ride on a train, bus, or other public transport. Providing a way to move people who would otherwise take unnecessary risks behind the wheel makes sense. Even if one takes the harsh view that such people “deserve” to be punished for their misdeeds, innocent people who might be involved in accidents with them do not.

This is not to say that every proposed form of public transportation should be funded. Many public transportation projects may not make sense for economic or other reasons. All I’m suggesting is that the discussion should go beyond the usual ideological talking points and include safety. Also, when people are considering cost, they should also think about the hidden costs of death, disability, and property damage caused by leaving so many cars on the road.

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