Rail safety is on everyone's minds after this week's Amtrak derailment. When it comes to safety, Amtrak is a mixed bag. Accident rates are falling, but passenger injuries are on the rise. For instance, Amtrak passengers are about 58 times as likely to get injured as train riders in France.
On the other hand, let's not lose sight of the big picture: For all of Amtrak's troubles, rail travel is still incredibly safe in the United States, especially compared with other forms of travel. Yesterday, Princeton professor Sam Wang pointed to some research by economist Ian Savage of Northwestern University on the relative fatality rates of various modes of travel.
Savage aggregated fatality statistics from 2000 to 2009 and then expressed them for different transportation methods in terms of deaths per billion passenger miles traveled. The main finding: Automobiles are one of the most deadly ways to get from Point A to Point B, with 7.28 deaths for every billion passenger miles.
This fatality rate was 17 times as high as the rate for trains, which stood at 0.43 deaths per billion miles. Subways, buses and planes are even safer still. So when you see media figures talking about "scary" train fatality numbers in isolation, it's good to keep this context in mind.
There's one more travel method that is far and away more deadly than all the rest. In the chart below, I added the fatality rate for motorcyclists. Note that I had to adjust the scale considerably to accommodate the sky-high rate of 213 deaths per billion miles.
"A motorcyclist who traveled 15 miles every day for a year, had an astonishing 1 in 860 chance of dying," Savage wrote. "The rate per passenger mile was 29 times that for automobiles and light trucks." By contrast, "A person who took a 500 mile flight every single day for a year would have a fatality risk of 1 in 85,000."
One more important finding from Savage's research: Fatality rates across all modes of transport have fallen considerably in recent decades. "By almost any measure, transportation is considerably safer now than it was in the mid 1970s," he concludes. "The improvement is especially noticeable for commercial modes such as aviation, railroads and maritime. Even the risks of private highway driving have halved during the past thirty-five years."