What’s news in transportation mayhem?


Why is a commuter train accident that claims 1 percent of Minnesota’s annual highway death toll front-page news 1,200 miles away? Multiple-fatality auto crashes right here seldom crack a Star Tribune cover.

The answer starts with the relative rarity of each of these sad events. Deadly car collisions occur with such drumbeat regularity that editors and readers hardly consider them newsworthy. It’s the unusual that merits the headlines. Thus, Sunday’s derailment of the 5:54 from Poughkeepsie in the Bronx that killed four and injured dozens more gets the big play in print and on the air.

Strangely, though, this overblown coverage tends to give the erroneous impression that public rail transportation is terribly dangerous. In fact, it’s car travel that kills tens of thousands in the United States each year and more than a million worldwide, while rail casualties make up a tiny fraction of those body counts.

But because many more Americans regularly drive than ride transit, the majority can even gain comfort from news of mayhem on public transportation, confident that piloting their own vehicles will keep them safe and sound. Of course, that’s true except when it isn’t, over and over again.

This is a great example of how might, or ubiquity, makes right. Still, it wasn’t so until autocentrism gripped our culture in recent decades. As Brandon Keim pointed out in a Nautilus post, in the first half of the 20th century “the idea of a city oriented around transportation in cars … would have been incomprehensible.”

Eventually, however, the common view of motor vehicles as dangerous intruders on public streets — required by the city of Cincinnati to be modified for a top speed of 25 miles per hour just 90 years ago — gave way to the invention of jaywalking as an offense by pedestrians against cars.

These days, the longed-for technological answer to motor vehicle crashes, and congestion too, is the driverless car, seen as a big improvement over those “other guys” behind the wheel who cause all the trouble. Google and U.S. car companies are in hot research pursuit of this latest holy grail of automobility. Volvo just announced a big rollout in its home city of Gothenburg, Sweden.

But, as Burkhard Bilger reported in a fascinating (and lengthy) New Yorker article, getting driverless technology to prime time is a lot trickier than practically anyone imagined. We may yet see lots of robot cars on the street in our lifetimes, but think of the news it will make when one of them inevitably runs amok and kills somebody.