Don't permanently slow Metro for minor added safety
A driver slammed on his car's brakes on the Capital Beltway yesterday after coming too close for comfort to another car in front. The maneuver successfully avoided a collision. In response, AAA called for all drivers to travel no faster than 40 mph indefinitely.
Of course, this didn't happen, because it's silly. Drivers come a little too close for comfort all the time. Some of the time, they don't stop in time and collide. Occasionally, that causes injury and even death.
Crashes, injuries, and deaths are terrible, and we should try to minimize it with better road design, especially in areas with pedestrians and bicyclists as well as motor vehicles. But nobody is suggesting making all freeways 40 mph, even though it would drastically reduce fatalities, because it would also curtail mobility more than people are willing to accept.
However, this is essentially what ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter suggested for Metro. In a May 7th statement following last week's incident where an operator hit the emergency brake to avoid hitting another train, Jeter called for "Train speeds [to] not exceed 40 miles per hour until Metro has resolved the train circuit issues."
The train operators are understandably concerned that their train is going to come too close to another train, which puts them and the passengers in danger. Nobody wants trains to hit. But slowing all trains down considerably and indefinitely isn't the answer.
At the recent streetcar technology forum, transit planner Thomas Hickey pointed out, "The safest train is one that does not move." Hickey argued that systems can't completely eliminate risk, but they can manage risk.
Talking to the Examiner's Kytja Weir, "Jeter said riders probably wouldn't mind if they knew why [slowdowns] were occurring. She said Metro could use its network of electronic signs in stations and trains to alert riders of a safety slowdown on the affected line."
As a rider, I would mind. Many riders would surely switch to driving, simply because Metro would get slower and less convenient. Plus, the slower trains go, the lower the overall capacity of the line, making them more crowded. As Weir notes, trains are already slower, less reliable, and more crowded just because of the manual operation, which Board member Chris Zimmerman has criticized.
Would things be worse if another train collision happened? Maybe, but we shouldn't cripple our transit system for what could become years just in an effort to avoid all risk. Even with the 2009 crash, Metro is still about 34 times safer than driving.
I've worried that FTA oversight could bring speed restrictions that harm transit and overall commuting safety, like FRA regulation did to intercity passenger rail. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff assured us that this wasn't their plan, though we never know what a future FTA Administrator might do.
The fact is that there was no crash. A train got a little too close, and yes, that's a problem which deserves the highest priority attention. But this is precisely why we have a human, and why Metro says they think it's wise to keep the trains running on manual, to ensure operators are paying closer attention. The backup system is the human, and in this case, the backup system cut in to prevent a crash.
I feel safe enough riding the trains with the signals, where Metro is working hard to eliminate any flaws, plus the human set of eyes from a trained operator at the controls. It's not going to eliminate every possible source of risk, but there's risk in everything, especially movement. Let's keep Metro trains moving so they can get people where they need to go quickly and efficiently as well as safely.
Jeter also called for better procedures for notifying the union and workers as soon as incidents happen and following up 24 hours later. Those procedures make complete sense and Metro should indeed ensure immediate and thorough communication, to the union, safety oversight officials, and the public about any incident.
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