Transportation Safety


If you have ever taken any sort of train you have seen that foreboding red device, the emergency brake.  When do we use it?  The New York Times’ City Room blog recently featured a video answering just that question.  The video–“Emergency Brake”–is by Casey Neistat, who risked arrest and prop limbs in the making of his production.

The basic moral of the story is that the emergency brake should never really be used while a train is in motion.  Do not use in the case of a fire, you’ll burn.  Do not use in the case of a medical emergency, the person will be caught in greater peril.  Do not use in case of a crime, you’re trapped with a criminal (probably armed and now angry).  The emergency brake should be saved for those times when the train is in the station and somebody is in danger, either caught in the door or fallen onto the tracks.

As Neistat clearly illustrates this a is a problem of signage and communication.  What the agencies think of as clear communication just has the average commuter confused.  Money quote from the Gothamist:

According to the Times, straphangers should pull the brake if “someone gets caught between the train’s closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate.” In other circumstances, pulling the cord could make it harder for help to arrive. That’s what happened on a D train last November when a straphanger fatally stabbed another commuter and frightened passengers pulled the brake. The agency has told Gothamist that when a straphanger pulls the cord, it brings the train to an immediate stop using compressed-air brakes. The train crew must notify a control center, which in turn alerts police. The NYPD then advises the control center on how to respond, and that message is relayed to the train crew. It can take between 5 and 15 minutes for the crew to reset the braking function and get the train moving again.

Commuters pull the emergency brake about 1,000 times per year when there is no clear emergency. In 2009, the agency recorded 15 instances in which straphangers pulled the cord to respond to an emergency, like a sick rider, the paper notes. Some subway riders, like Brooklyn resident Zev David Deans, said the agency should more clearly outline when straphangers should, and shouldn’t, use the emergency brake. “They could put it in big letters — ‘Pull in case of …’ — and then the few reasons why,” he said. “If it just says ’emergency,’ you’re going to pull it for any reason.” An MTA NYC Transit spokesman said the current instructions are more than sufficient: “We think that it is clear.” (bold mine)

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The attempted terrorist-attack on a Christmas flight to Detroit ended in the inevitable security restrictions on international flights, including the removal of blankets in the last hour of flight.  While the New York Times was wondering how terrorism has affected the American desire to travel and Slate was commenting on the idiocy and inefficacy of our security spending I have been wondering what would happen if another form of transit were attacked.

Our transportation security measures are incredibly reactionary rather than visionary or proactive.  Just look at how much security there is when boarding a plane and how non-existent a real security presence is at an Amtrak station or major bridge entrance.  I am afraid both of the consequences of this passivity and the consequences of potential increased security.

Forgive me for my non-politically correct statement, but it is rather surprising that a terrorist has not struck an American train as happened in Spain in 2004 or another place of large congregation such as a bridge entrance or bus terminal.  After all, that has to be a lot easier to do than getting through airport security.

As much as I fear the tragic consequences of such an act, I am more afraid of Americans having their mobility restricted.  Terrorists almost certainly are more likely to hit a train or bus than a series of cars on I-95.  Therefore restrictions are likely to hit passengers getting on trains and buses, even commuters and regular subway and bus riders.  Not only is this extraordinarily costly as the TSA demonstrates, but it may serve to do exactly what this country does not need: promote cars over public transit.

I’m not saying that police should not patrol transit stations and dogs should not sniff luggage lying around and that passengers should not report suspicious activity, but making train security similar to airplane security could kill any high speed rail venture.  America’s transit future depends on development and transportation investment that encourages and allows people to travel together rather than individually.  Of course communal transit is more attractive to a terrorist (the same reason we go crazy when an airplane crashes but most ignore individual car crashes even though cars claim thousands more lives than planes do).

America’s economic and cultural future depends on the population having equal freedom of physical movement as it does freedom of ideas and personality via electronic transmission and paper delivery.  American security agencies must keep Americans safe on the rails and the roads as well as in the air.  However, placing similar restrictions on train riders will have disastrous consequences as time-savings via train are not nearly as dramatic as via flight.  To keep us safe the work must be done behind the scenes, not by aggressively screening every passenger and forcing unnecessary restrictions while riding and boarding.

In light of some high-profile automobile accidents involving older drivers Massachusetts has begun the policy discussion regarding enforcing more stringent licensing requirements for those individuals.  State legislators and DOT officials are contemplating a range of requirements to protect the elderly as well as other drivers and pedestrians.

I support measures that require older drivers (i.e. drivers over 65 or 75) to renew licenses more frequently than other drivers and ensure that the renewal involves a driving test and vision test.  This is not age-based discrimination, but rather steps necessary to protect all people on the road.  However, such restrictions which may limit and indeed deny many older individuals access to the driver’s wheel need to be coupled with increased access to public transportation and paratransit services.

I researched precisely these issues this semester in an independent study.  Here is a selection from my research:

While not all elderly individuals are disabled, age significantly affects the ability of people to drive, forcing them to rely on means of public transportation. Cognitive and physical abilities decline as people age, and elderly drivers are the drivers most likely to be in a crash except those under 25. The aging of the body affects drivers in many ways: declining vision affects the ability to judge distance and speed, metabolism changes slow reaction times, and withering muscle mass increases the difficulty of making rapid movements like sudden braking.  Elderly drivers are also more likely to be injured in a car crash than other drivers.

More to the point, older drivers are more likely than younger drivers to be killed in car crashes relative to miles traveled; drivers 85 and older have a fatality rate in crashes nine times higher than drivers 25 to 69 for each mile driven.  Many states are taking proactive measures to protect the elderly and other passengers and pedestrians by requiring older drivers to renew their drivers’ licenses.  Illinois and New Hampshire already require drivers over 75 applying to renew their drivers’ licenses to take a driving test and a vision test.  While New Hampshire and Illinois have the most restrictive regulations, other state have taken precautions, such as Iowa, which requires drivers over 70 to renew their licenses every two years in person with a vision test, rather than every five years for younger drivers.

Elderly Americans without cars are severely restricted in their ability to be active members of society.  Regardless of the reasons why elderly people do not drive, for the 21% of Americans over 65 who do not experience 15% fewer trips to the doctor, 59% fewer shopping trips and outings to restaurants and 65% fewer trips for social, family and religious activities than their driving peers.  These issues are already becoming particularly pressing in certain areas of the country, such as Florida where 19.6% of the driving population is over 65 and older; the national average is 14.9% of the driving population is 65 and older.

Some states, such as Arkansas, where drivers over 65 account for 29% of all accidents, may be compelled to deal with these issues sooner than later.  There is also an ethnic justice component to the need for improved public transportation for the elderly, because minorities are disproportionately affected by the lack of transit options. In the population of Americans over 65 just 16% of white people do not drive, but 42% of African Americans, 39% of Latinos and 45% of Asian Americans do not drive.

Unfortunately, all the transportation safety news tends to focus on airlines, especially given the attempted terrorist detonation last week.  However, America’s roads are still the most deadly form of transportation.  The elderly desire, deserve and need transportation as much as anyone else, but not at the expense of others’ safety.

As the baby boomers age and the elderly population grows (The United States Census Bureau estimates that in 2010 there will be 5,751,000 people over 85 and by 2050 there will be 19,041,000 people over 85, accounting for 4.3% of the projected overall American population of 439 million.) the needs of this population will only become more apparent.  We need to develop alternative means that are coherent with general transportation, especially public transportation, priorities.  Or else our grandparents and us will all be in unnecessary danger every day.