Driving is safer than light rail

Supporters of mass transit will often argue that it is “safer” than driving. Like many other such claims, it does not stack up against the evidence.

As we show in our new report “Twin Cities Traffic Congestion: It’s No Accident

In 1967, automobile accidents killed 53.5 people for every billion vehicle miles of travel. By 2015, safer vehicles and safer roads had reduced this to 11.3 fatalities per billion vehicle miles. Urban roads have always been safer than rural roads, with fatalities in urban areas declining from 36.2 per billion miles in 1967 to 7.1 in 2015. At an average occupancy rate of 1.67 people per vehicle, that’s 4.3 fatalities per billion passenger miles. Minnesota has significantly lower fatality rates than the national average, suffering just 4.0 urban fatalities per billion vehicle miles (2.4 per billion passenger miles) in 2015. Minnesota urban freeways are the safest of all, seeing just 1.6 fatalities per billion vehicle miles or less than one fatality per billion passenger miles.

By comparison, transit is no safer than cars today, and some forms of transit, in particular light rail and commuter rail, are far more dangerous. Because transit vehicles are so much bigger than other vehicles, they are fairly safe for people on board, but can be deadly to pedestrians, bikers, and automobile occupants.

While figures are not available for Minnesota, nationally transit buses killed an average of 4.0 people for every billion passenger miles they carried in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. That makes buses about as safe as automobiles. Commuter rail, however, did much worse at 7.3 fatalities per billion passenger miles. Light rail is the deadliest of all, at 15.7 fatalities per billion passenger miles. The numbers vary from year to year, but—unlike automobiles—transit is not getting much safer over time. The average over the past 10 years was 4.3 fatalities for buses, 8.8 for commuter rail, and 13.9 for light rail.