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Just Who is Unsafe?

By Frank Gruber

October 12, 2009 -- In the course of researching last week's column about the controversy over where to build the Expo line maintenance yard one issue that came up frequently was whether light rail is safe.

The tour of the Hawthorne maintenance yard that I joined came two days after the Los Angeles Times, on Sept. 27, had published articles about the safety problems that had plagued the Metrolink regional commuter rail system since it opened 15 years ago.  According to the Times, through Sept. 2008 244 people had been killed on the Metrolink system. 

Although some of these fatalities had occurred in crashes involving trains only, most notably the head-on crash in Chatsworth in 2008 that killed 25, most of the deaths resulted from smaller accidents at grade crossings where trains hit motorists or pedestrians.

While the articles contrasted Metrolink's record and response to these accidents with what the newspaper's reporter saw as a more safety-conscious attitude at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), which runs the County's light rail and subway lines, the articles made some people on the tour nervous about Expo.  Over the years, many people have died at grade crossings involving Metro's light rail lines, too.

Aside from the Times article, the Santa Monica College comment letter to the Expo draft environmental impact report that I referred to last week included many comments relating to the College's fears that a grade crossing at Stewart Street, which would be used by trains entering and exiting the maintenance yard, would be dangerous for motorists and pedestrians.

Going back a little further, although earlier this year most of the testimony at City Council meetings supported the City of Santa Monica's successful effort to persuade Expo to run trains at street level down Colorado Boulevard, instead of on an elevated line, there was a minority view that running trains on the street would be dangerous.

So -- will the Expo line be dangerous when it runs through Santa Monica?

The answers to this question must begin with an acknowledgement of reality that some may consider cavalier: modern life is fraught with dangers (although it's probably not as dangerous as pre-modern life). 

When I took torts (personal injury law) in law school, I learned that what determined whether an injury-causing action was negligent was whether the accident was foreseeable even though the person who took the action didn't mean for the injury to occur.  Of course, if an injury-causing person knew that the injury would result from his action, he could be liable for willful misconduct - something more serious than negligence.

The professor then gave us statistics that showed that for every X amount of construction one could predict that there would be Y amount of injuries.  He then asked us if that meant that a builder of a skyscraper, or a dam, or a highway, or whatever, should be held to be "negligent per se", or even willfully liable for any injuries that occur during construction?

There's no question that if you run trains across streets, sooner or later there will be an accident.  In that sense, trains are dangerous.  But that's not how we typically measure danger.  The question is, what is the comparative level of risk?

The Times reported that in 15 years, 244 people had died in Metrolink-related incidents.  Here's another number: 201.  That's the number of pedestrians, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, who were killed in traffic accidents in Los Angeles County in 2008 - just one year.  Twenty-seven bicyclists were killed, and 118 motorcyclists.  The county had a total of 711 traffic fatalities in 2008.

Motorists rather predictably kill people who get in their way, but no one is saying that we must put crossing gates at intersections along auto sewers like Olympic Boulevard, or make cars ring bells as they approach intersections.

Most people who vote or otherwise have power in our society own cars and drive.  They don't want to be told that driving at 50 miles per hour on a boulevard like Wilshire or Olympic is inherently (and ridiculously) dangerous.  At that speed, which L.A. motorists consider to be their right, it takes about 300 feet to stop a car even if the driver is not talking on a cell phone or texting - too long to see a pedestrian crossing a street and then stop in time.

If you don't expect to use transit, or if you expect to be inconvenienced by it, then it's easy to find statistics that make transit look dangerous.  But the additional risk is trivial compared to what we accept every day with cars.

All transit facilities should be designed with safety in mind.  Because motorists have proven over the decades to be breathtakingly stupid, grade crossings in particular need good design and appropriate equipment.  In all fairness, however, 100 or so passengers in a train should have priority at an intersection over a dozen or so people in their cars.

Light rail stop in downtown Denver]

Trains and trams have operated on streets for a long time all over the world.  People - yes, including school children and motorists -- coexist safely enough with them.

* * *

In case you were wondering what was happening with the lawsuit between residents of Seaview Terrace and the City of Santa Monica that I wrote about last month, it turned out that because of a scheduling error with the court, the settlement conference that was to have taken place Sept. 29 has been postponed to Oct. 30.

Meeting notices:

As mentioned last week, Expo will be holding a community meeting in Santa Monica to discuss the status of the Final Environmental Impact Report on the Expo line.  Here are the details:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009, 6:00pm
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main Street
East Wing Meeting Room

Unfortunately for meeting junkies, Santa Monica College will be holding a "community and scoping" meeting the same night with regard to an update to its Facilities Master Plan.  Here are details about that:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009, 7:00pm
SMC Main Campus, Business Room 111
1900 Pico Blvd.

Tram line in Prague

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