Opinion

opinion | Robin Washington

How we perceive accidents like the Amtrak derailment

Investigators and first responders worked Wednesday near the wreckage of a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Investigators and first responders worked Wednesday near the wreckage of a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia.

Three days ago, you wouldn’t get much attention at a cocktail party talking about Positive Train Controls.

Now, everyone’s an expert on them.

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In the wake of one of the country’s deadliest passenger train crashes in Philadelphia late Tuesday, outrage is growing over why the stretch didn’t have the devices designed to slow a train if the engineer is speeding or misses a signal.

Equally frustrating — and heartbreaking for the loved ones of the eight passengers killed and about 200 injured — is the knowledge that Congress mandated (though did not necessarily fund) Amtrak to install the controls system-wide by the end of the year.

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Yet it’s not the first time speed controls were identified as something that could have prevented a horrific accident. Nor is it novel for the public’s attention suddenly to focus on a risk that had long been identified.

“When there’s a risk around, we live with it every day and it mostly doesn’t jump up and bite us,” says David Ropeik, a risk management consultant based in Concord. “Then along comes an incident and it seems glaring in comparison to the silence that preceded it.”

Working speed controls could have prevented the 2013 crash of a train similarly speeding around a curve in Spain, killing 80 passengers. I say “working,” because reports a year later were still inconclusive whether the controls had failed or were never installed.

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The congressional mandate for US trains followed a Los Angeles Metrolink crash that killed 25 people in 2008. Even earlier, the controls were called for after Amtrak crashes in Maryland in 1987 and 1996, in which a combined 27 people lost their lives.

If there’s outrage toward politicians who failed to fund the safety measures or bureaucrats who didn’t implement them, the public’s own reaction to calamity is also predictive psychological behavior, says Ropeik.

“This (incident) elevates concern, fear. It doesn’t cause terror, doesn’t cause panic,” he says. “Most people who were supposed to ride trains today did.”

In fact, those who do make good on a vow never to step in an Amtrak train — or Germanwings plane, or a Malaysia-related flight — are actually increasing their risk of death.

“After the terrorist attacks of 2001, some people instead of flying chose to drive,” he said. “And we know that that has elevated death tolls; it’s actually been measured after 2001.”

You don’t need a study to tell you that: Everyone knows driving a car is far riskier than getting on any train, plane, or bus — even when there is an incident. Look at Monday’s Bolt Bus explosion on the Mass Pike and ask yourself if you’d walk away from a comparable flare-up in your car — or for that matter, if you’ve done all the preventive maintenance you’ve promised yourself to do.

But human reactions are driven by emotion, not logic, especially when we can fool ourselves with the illusion of having control.

“It feels safer to travel in some method where you have the wheel in your hand,” Ropeik says. “Risk is not about the numbers, it’s about how we feel.”

I learned something about control and, specifically, how hard it is to stop a train, when riding in an Amtrak locomotive between New York and Washington, D.C., a few years ago. I can’t say it was the same ill-fated stretch of Philadelphia track, but it was one of the few areas the engineer could actually get the train up to maximum speed, because Amtrak routes are along tracks owned by freight and commuter rail lines that give precedence to their own trains.

“You see up ahead of us?” I recall the engineer saying. “By the time we see anything wrong, it’s too late.”

That’s if an individual is trying to stop a train. It shouldn’t be as difficult for an entire society to decide it wants to prevent accidents — unless we put it out of our collective consciousness again.

Robin Washington writes about transportation. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com or via Twitter @robinbirk.

Related:

The Big Picture: Amtrak derailment

2012 | John E. Sununu: If US oversees health care like it does trains, there’s trouble ahead

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