Media Coverage Of Spanish Train Crash Obscuring Massive Car Deaths

Fox News is using a tragic train crash in Spain to question whether California's high-speed rail plan is “safe.” However, the train crash is a rare event: you are more likely to die from a shark attack or a lightning strike than a train crash in the United States. Automobile crashes, on the other hand, are one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and are especially likely to cut short the lives of the very young, exacting large social and economic costs.

The Crash Context

CBS News framed its story similarly to Fox News, titling its report “Despite Spain crash, California proceeding with high-speed rail system.” However, its report noted that “high speed rail is one of the safest ways to travel, generally speaking.” Indeed, Japan and France have been operating high-speed rail for over 30 years without a single fatality. The President of US High Speed Rail Association, Andy Kunz, said in a phone conversation that “the California system will be more like the one in Japan” than the Spain track. The Spanish crash, which occurred when a driver reportedly went twice the speed limit, occurred on an older line that was “not on their true high-speed system.” He added California's system will be using the “very safest” measures including technology that “overrides the driver in cases where there is a situation like this” and tracks that “don't have tight curves like” the one in Spain, which is “why it costs more.”

Art Guzzetti, the Vice President of Policy at the American Public Transportation Association, told Media Matters in a phone conversation, “the way the media should cover it is they should look at the whole body of experience” as “you can't draw conclusions from one” tragic event. “The whole body of experience, the whole body of evidence, the whole body of facts shows that passenger rail is safe,” he said. “The real safety issue,” he added, is motor vehicles, noting that deaths per passenger mile for motor vehicles are over 40 times larger than for Amtrak, and over 20 times larger than for commuter rail.

But car crashes typically don't get the type of headline coverage that the Spanish train crash is receiving.As the President of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety told The New York Times in 2010, motor vehicle fatalities “happen in small numbers, are geographically dispersed and aren't considered headline-grabbing news.”

Washington Post blog, in contrast to much of the coverage, explained the rarity of crashes such as the one in Spain: “trains are far, far safer than most other forms of transportation within Europe” and fatal train accidents have “been declining steadily.”

A Needed Paradigm Shift

Current reports on traffic safety frequently focus on changing individuals: convincing them to not text and drive, to bring a designated driver when they drink, and to obey speed limits. However, the possibility for systematic changes, including building public transportation and countering sprawl with smart growth, is often overlooked. As Todd Litman, a researcher at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, noted in a report, cities with high quality mass transit reap multi-fold health benefits, including much lower traffic fatalities overall:

People who live or work in communities with high quality public transportation tend to drive significantly less and rely more on alternative modes (walking, cycling and public transit) than they would in more automobile-oriented areas. This reduces traffic crashes and pollution emissions, increases physical fitness and mental health, and provides access to medical care and healthy food.

Despite this, policymakers continue to place mass transit as a low priority. When the media do not put public transit accidents in context, they reinforce these priorities.

Max Greenberg contributed to this report.