When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have trains

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.

5 thoughts on “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have trains

  1. RobRoySimmons

    The two engineers I have talked to says the eyes always stay with you if they look up and lock on them.

  2. Bill T

    This is far from a perfect world! Bad things happen all the time, to all kinds of people. It does stand to reason that the more careful you are the safer you are, however, unforeseen things happen even to the most careful of folks. If you don’t follow the rules of safety wherever you are and whatever you are doing “accidents” will catch up with you. If you are following ALL the rules of safety some dunce who is careless may take you with him when he screws up.

    Know the safe way to do things and keep situational awareness. The more the better. “Condition YELLOW”?
    You Bet!

  3. aGrimm

    I employed risk statistics teaching radiation safety, so got to know a lot about risks. Being a male 18 to 25 years old is far riskier than smoking (given our general lack of common sense and sex drive during those ages, I was not surprised at this fact). What really jumped out from the statistics was all the holler over things that had a very low risk (low levels of radiation being one of those). Nobody hollered about the really risky stuff.

    The train industry has gone to great lengths to improve train safety, but invariably and unfortunately the better percentage of train death accidents (excluding derailments) are due to the stupidity of those who get killed.

    Do you happen to have a breakdown of the ages/sex of those killed? Want to bet, before we look, that there are more 18-25 year old males in mix?

    1. Hognose Post author

      The railroad stats I linked to can be broken down several ways, but not by the age, blood chemistry, or social situation of the deceased. My recollection of news stories suggests that a disproportionate number of the victims are intoxicated and homeless (which itself, in the USA, usually means some combination of mental illness and substance abuse). I’d be surprised indeed if the findings in the EU, Russia, Japan, China or any civilized country were much different. I don’t know if those nations share the US’s strange penchant for dumping mentally ill people in the streets to self-medicate.

  4. Stefan van der Borght

    Hmmm, I remember posting a comment somewhere about here but it never showed up….did I screw up the name & email and get nixed by the spam filter? Ah well.

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