PopMech has a look at rail safety (hat tip, Glenn Reynolds), that reveals just how many people perish in rail accidents — mostly fools who stray onto the tracks — every year. It is instructive to compare train fatalities, which are thought by most people to be rare and exceptional, and accidental gun fatalities, which are widely described as commonplace. First, to the trains:
“Statistically, every 94 minutes something or someone is getting hit by a train in the United States,” says David Rangel, deputy director of Modoc Railroad, a training school for future train engineers. Now, most of those incidents dont involve people—Rangel’s statistic also includes the occasional abandoned shopping cart, wayward livestock, and other objects that somehow find their way onto the tracks. But, according to the Federal Railroad Administration FRA, 784 people were killed in train-related accidents in 2013, the highest total in the last four years.
That accident rate comes down to a combination of factors, each increasing the likelihood of disasters. “Railcars are incredibly quiet,” Rangel says. “[Tracks] are designed to achieve the lowest possible coefficient of friction…At age 62, I could push a train car down a track.” Unlike a steam engine that would hammer the rails a main reason why they were retired, modern railcars glide with low friction, and crushed rock underneath the tracks helps diminish impact.
Throughout his career, Rangel has two fatalities while operating a train. One of his two sons, who are also engineers, has four. The toll on the men and women operating these trains can be almost as difficult as the grieving families. “It never leaves,” Rangel says.
You might want to Read The Whole Thing™.
We thought that most of the fatalities would be at intersections, but if you play with the Federal Railway Administration’s data available here, you see that of the 784 killed, 251 were at intersections (Race to the Crossing, 2nd Prize!) and 488 (depending on how you slice ’em) were trespassing on a rail right-of-way. The remainder were mostly railroad or contractor employees, and a half-dozen galactically unlucky passengers.
We were interested in comparing the numbers for train accidents to gun accidents. Many of the available gun-accident statistics are polluted by inclusion of suicides and homicides. Of course, some of the train victims may be suicides and homicides too; for a while, it seemed like throwing a citizen from the platform was a favored sport of New York City’s untreated mental patients.
A colorful example of an untrustworthy figure is here; an anti-gun astroturf group came up with a number of 11,419 and a fancy graphic, which shows the peak of “gun deaths” (not the “gun accidents” they tease the page as) coming in the early-20s peak years of gangbangers. Further proof it’s an anti-astro-group is that they define 18-year-olds as “children.” They seem to have used Slate’s methodology, which includes cop-killing desperadoes and terrorists like Tamerlan Tsarnayev as “gun victims.”
To look at a different way to slice the gun data, let’s look at NSSF, which examines the cases and develops a number that is strictly unintentional deaths by firearm (.pdf): 606 in 2010 and 600 in 2011, the most recent years for which they have CDC detailed data.
The US has kept firearms accident records since 1903. As the population has increased enormously, the number of fatal accidents has declined. There are probably many reasons for this, including superior medical treatment for firearms wounds, and safer gun designs, but the improved safety culture among members of the gun culture is probably the largest single reason.
It does appear that an American is more likely to die from being hit by a train than to be fatally shot accidentally. Just as your odds of being one of those railway stats go way up if you do dumb stuff like race trains or nap on roadbeds, your odds of being a gun fatality increase with irresponsible gun-handling, and decrease with scrupulous adherence to the principles of safe gun handling.