I have some urgent news for North American motorists: this coming weekend or the next – or both – there will be an epidemic level of traffic fatalities on highways across the continent. In the U.S. alone, at least 90 deaths per day are expected, and if the first weekend in August follows historical patterns, the toll could climb as high as 500 for just the four days from August 4 to August 7; nonfatal casualties will be equally high. In Canada, the August long weekend is sure to inspire similar carnage on the road.
Despite the certainty of this tragedy, I’m sure you haven’t heard much of it in the local or national news. There are no urgent warnings on the radio, no handwringing op-eds in the paper wondering if perhaps the very backbone of our transporation system – the highway – is terminally unsafe.
On the other hand, I’m reasonably sure if I mention high-speed rail, you’ll already start wondering about safety, and if I say Chinese high-speed rail, you’ll know I’m talking about a mode of transportation that is very dangerous indeed. If I were to ask you to gauge the relative risk of driving to the neighboring state to visit relatives next weekend versus taking a high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, I’m willing to bet you’d choose the interstate trip in a heartbeat. For many months to come, maybe even years, you might well pause before even considering a trip by bullet train, especially in China. They are suspect.
But interstates? Maybe you drove one last week, the day before last, earlier today. Accidents happen, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Right?
Well, the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing the average North American will do with any regularlity that is more dangerous than driving a car on a highway, and the risk of driving on a highway on a summer holiday weekend is so much more dangerous than taking a train – at any speed, at any time, virtually anywhere on Earth – that it should be shocking to us that the safety of our highway system receives so little scrutiny and gives us so little pause.
Still, there was a collision on a train track in China that made headlines the world over last weekend, and it produced headline after headline containing the words high-speed rail and unsafe in close proximity, and this has created a climate of general suspicion sufficient, for example, to cause shares in Canada’s leading rail-equipment maker to plummet. And so now the entire notion of fast trains – even beyond China’s borders – is likely to seem risky for some time.
There are two factors at work here, problematic for our ability to gauge risk in isolation but devastating in tandem. They regularly cloud our collective ability to make big decisions about public policy issues such as transportation infrastructure. The two factors are novelty and availability.
The first – novelty – is particularly important to the way we gather and disseminate news. The news media thrives on novelty, especially in its current incarnation as a multiheaded, digitized noise machine addicted to the latest breaking thing, tweeted and posted and maybe (but increasingly rarely) eventually analyzed and contextualized in a news cycle that now seems mere minutes long some days.
The fact that 90 or more Americans die on the highways every day is not news in and of itself, because it is not new. Even the finer details about deadly holiday weekends – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day are the worst in the U.S., but the first weekend in August occupies the fourth, seventh and eleventh most dangerous driving dates on the calendar – are unremarkable. Sure, the higher risk is sometimes reported ahead of holiday weekends, but it’s reported in the same tone, really, as the weather. Sometimes troubling, but predictable and unavoidable and necessary to the functioning of our societies.
A collision of high-speed trains, though? Even ones on the other side of the world, in a place whose domestic affairs rarely make the news? There’s your novelty, and that’s what makes headlines.
So never mind that 39 people dying in a nation of a billion-plus in a one-off accident actually has much less relevance and indicates far less risk than 120 or so dying in motor vehicle fatalities in the nation of 300 million you live in the day after tomorrow. That won’t be news. The grand total likely won’t even be reported. But rest assured if a fast-moving train plows into another one anywhere on Earth, it’ll be a top story.
The deeper problem this creates is what behavioral economists call “availability bias.” Availability bias is what makes the world seem more dangerous even as crime rates plummet across North America – because there are many more news media outlets than ever before, offering increasingly graphic and lurid detail about the violent crime that does happen. And it’s what makes fast trains seem more dangerous than the car in your garage. If there’s a frame of reference readily available to you – something you’ve recently encountered in the news or experienced directly – it will make that event seem much more likely than it actually is to happen again in the near future.
You saw bullet-train carnage on last night’s news, and that might be your only direct knowledge of bullet trains in recent memory, so high-speed rail scans as dangerous. But you drove on a highway – perhaps several – to get to work today, and the trip passed without incident, so driving on highways is safe.
And the reason this matters is that if we had an accurate sense of the real risks to our survival, the relative safety of trains – fast ones for intercity trips and ones on light rail for local trips - would justify the expense of putting them at the top of our priority list for public transportation funding all by itself. Before we’d even get into reducing emissions and making our cities and our world more livable, we’d be clamoring for trains simply because we’d prefer the safest form of transportation in as many circumstances as possible.
The first step in better assessing our collective risk and building systems to reduce it might be an addict’s creed. We need to admit we have a problem and ask for help. We’re novelty junkies, fed by ad-revenue pushers in the media, and it’s clouding our understanding of the real risks we face.
To calculate risk 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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