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Houston: Epidemic of Destructive Motorists is Accentuated in Crashes With Light Rail

Light Rail Progress – February 2004

Recent events make especially clear that Houston has an enormous and alarming problem: a traffic system out of control, basically allowing a small but growing minority of careless and arrogant motorists to seriously and continuously endanger the entire community. This is a reality which apparently has existed for quite a long time, but which has been only recently – in the winter of 2003-2004 – brought to the forefront of public attention by a spate of accidents involving motor vehicles colliding with trains on the city's new light rail transit (LRT) system. And while Houston may represent an extreme case, its plight brings focus on a problem – dangerous motorists allowed to run amok – which is engulfing more and more American cities.

In response to this motor vehicle Destruction Derby, anti-rail, pro-automobile forces in Houston and elsewhere have seized the opportunity to crusade against ... the rail system! Thus they have resuscitated their attacks against Houston Metro's LRT expansion program (approved by voters last November). However, it's important to realize that every single accident has been the result of the implicated motorist doing something illegal (mostly illegal left turns into the paths of oncoming trains). The accidents have resulted in a flurry of a traffic citations for the drivers responsible.

Clearly, flouting of traffic laws – and traffic safety – is an epidemic problem in Houston. This is underscored by a Houston Chronicle editorial (28 Jan. 2004) whose headline admonished "No excuse for driving into path of light-rail trains" ... plus an avalanche of letters laying the blame for these collisions squarely on the city's wantonly safety-oblivious drivers who are presenting a danger to everyone, not just LRT passengers and personnel.

"Worst drivers in America"

Even before the problem of collisions with LRT trains emerged, Houston's egregiously dangerous epidemic of life-threatening driver behavior was eliciting complaints and warnings. For example, a letter to the Chronicle on 1 Feb. 2003, calling the motor vehicle "Battering-ram weaponry", focused on Houston's rampant problem of road-rage confrontations and accidents:

Recent studies have shown that the rise of road rage on America's streets has precisely paralleled the rise in popularity of the sports utility vehicle. Both are symptoms of the increasing degree to which drivers are indifferent (at best) or completely self-centered (at worst) concerning others who share the road.

Modern cars seem to grow in size and weight with each year and shield drivers more and more from the outside world. The resulting notion is that a driver's action will have no consequences for him or her.

The failure to yield, cutting off other drivers, tailgating to force lane changes, angry gestures and other such antisocial behaviors carry with them no fear of reprisal; in essence, each driver acts exactly as he or she wants. Others and the environment be damned.

Is it any wonder our highways have become a battleground where guns and 5,000-pound battering rams are the weapons of choice?

Another letter, published the same day, chastised "the Houston Police Department's steadily declining effectiveness", and warned that the city's traffic-policing agency "seems to be saying that it can't stop them, so we should just surrender the roadways to the aggressive drivers."

Yet another letter, published 5 April 2003, highlighted the particular dangers to pedestrians, warning that "Houston drivers [are] a hazard to life and limb...", and that "... Houston is not conducive to walking." The writer noted that "On two occasions, i have almost been hit by drivers making right turns on red without stopping (or, hardly slowing down, in fact). Drivers who stop for red lights and block the pedestrian crosswalks are another hazard to people on foot."

Houston car-train crashChain-reaction pileup in late December 2002. Wanton carelessness of Houston motorists goes well beyond crashes with light rail trains, but appears to be acceptable feature of "car culture".

Driver carelessness leading to collisions with the new LRT trains has prompted a more recent outpouring of community outrage and barrage of letters. "The harsh reality is that Houston drivers (by and large) are some of the worst drivers in America" said one writer, warning that Houstonians should "start counting the days until someone dies as a result of drivers who do not understand basic road rules when it comes to operating their vehicles.".
[Houston Chronicle, 30 Dec. 2003]

A motorcyclist also focused on the deadly danger posed to cyclists by Houston's crisis of careless drivers:

I belong to a large Harley motorcycle group and our Houston chapter has recently lost several members to careless drivers. One ran a red light and killed one of our members. Another driver made a sudden left turn in the path of a motorcycle, killing another cyclist. The excuse given most often by a driver causing an accident with a motorcycle is, "I didn't see it." if Houston drivers cannot see a train, they certainly won't see motorcyclists unless they take responsibility to focus their attention on their driving.
[Houston Chronicle, 30 Jan. 2004]

Another writer, fingering "Houston's self-centered and obnoxious, 'this will never happen to me' drivers" insisted that "Houston drivers are so dumb that they are still racing 200-ton freight trains to intersections, so why should they be afraid of those dinky trains downtown?"
[Houston Chronicle, 30 Jan. 2004]

Almost all the motor vehicle collisions with LRT have been caused by drivers making illegal left turns into the path of oncoming trains, such as this one.
[Photo: Houston Chronicle]

Excerpts from additional letters cast more light on Houston's crisis, and the intensifying public outrage.

On 27 January:

The blame for the recent spate of accidents between cars and Metro's light rail can be laid solely on Houston's drivers. I was born here, moved to several others states with rail systems, then moved back, and I can honestly say this: Houston has the worst drivers of any city I've lived in.

They are aggressive, selfish road hogs, who drive with a "me first" attitude, have no consideration for anyone else on the road and chat incessantly on cell phones. I've heard several people blame the trains. The trains are not the ones turning obliviously into the paths of the cars.

The light rail is the first step toward the 21st century, and, unfortunately, Houston is light years behind other cities. Houston drivers will have to learn to adjust, share the road and obey the rules.
[Houston Chronicle 27 Jan. 2004]

On 29 January:

I do not understand these vehicle/rail accidents we are having in Houston. What part of "no left turn" do these automobile drivers not understand? After the first one, why are we having more accidents? Are people really this ignorant?

I just cannot believe we have had 11 accidents, all of them because the vehicle driver turned left in front of a MetroRail train, even though there was a sign prohibiting left turns! These accidents were well-reported in the Chronicle, on all the local TV news and on local radio stations. People don't deserve driver's licenses if they can't obey a simple "no left turn" sign.
[Houston Chronicle 29 Jan. 2004]

On 30 January:

Light rail is here to stay. The education, the signs posted, the safety alerts on TV and the news media reporting of accidents should inform the public to obey (a key word there, obey) traffic laws. The problem is not Metro's or one of educating the public, but with the public not obeying the laws.

But why should we? We ignore many of our transit laws. Putting more signs up and "educating" the public is a waste of money, pure and simple.

Here are just a few of laws we tend to bend while driving:

· Use turn signals when changing lanes.
· Do not cross solid lines to pass, turn, exit or enter.
· Stop at red lights. (They sure are bothersome, aren't they!)
· Do not tailgate.
[Houston Chronicle, 30 Jan. 2004]

Certainly, one of the most outrageous and bizarre accidents occurred when a Union Pacific railroad worker lifted a railroad crossing arm while another railroad employee drove a truck onto MetroRail's test track (in the same right-of-way as the railroad) and into the path of an oncoming Metro train performing a test run at high speed. The resulting crash sent the UP truck driver – who had received safety training that very morning! – to the hospital with serious injuries. The MetroRail train operator was thrown against the train's windshield, but fortunately received only slight injuries.

Frame from a Houston Metro video taken from aboard light rail car shows UPRR pickup truck (lower left) crashing with highspeed train after UP workers lifted crossing gates to permit truck into prohibited crossing.
[Photo: Houston Metro]

"Car culture" of dangerous driving

Even more than the others, this accident seems to suggest a prevailing culture of willful, arrogant disregard for common-sense safety, apparently stemming from many motorists' fantasies of absolute roadway supremacy and personal invulnerability. Houston's fundamental problem with motorists flouting safety, the law, and common sense is underscored by the urban area's staggeringly high roadway accident rate. On almost any day of the year, one can pick up Houston's major daily paper and read of at least one serious motor-vehicle accident.

The fatality rate alone should tell us something. According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System tabulation for 2002 – the latest available – the City of Houston registered 226 fatal motor vehicle accidents with 607 fatalities in one year. That's a fatal traffic accident about once every 39 hours in Houston – with a gruesome tally of nearly two persons (average 1.7) killed in traffic accidents each day.
[Source: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, FARS, 2002]

Also reflecting the city's road safety situation is the fact that Houston has an exceptionally high rate of accidents involving motorists striking pedestrians and cyclists. According to a study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, Houston has the worst Pedestrian Danger index of large Texas metro areas – including the highest percentage of fatal traffic victims who were pedestrians.
[Source: STPP, Mean Streets, 2002]

Certainly, there is room for improvement in the signage, signallization, and other traffic management methods Houston Metro has implemented to facilitate the interface of LRT operation and motor vehicle traffic. But the city's truly relevant and serious safety crisis appears to go well beyond the recent pattern of accidents involving MetroRail trains.

Anyone who rides a bus, in Houston or virtually any other major American city, has seen the kamikaze drivers, the maniac drivers, as well as the usual dingbat drivers ... flouting all common-sense, and legal, safety rules ... cutting in front of buses, making sharp turns directly across the path of oncoming buses, oblivious to transit-priority signage and signals (in the few places where they exist), arrogantly treating buses like inconvenient impediments to the motorists' supposedly sacrosanct right of movement (and treating passengers, crossing the street, as similarly annoying impediments, at best, or targets, at worst). But buses, for the most part, are smaller, lower-capacity, and thus far lighter vehicles than LRT cars and trains; motorists can make illegal moves around them with fewer accidents (except for bus passengers who are often injured by the sudden emergency stops). Trains, with far greater momentum, are far less forgiving of the violating motor vehicles.

There's no shortage of signage and signals to alert motorists to LRT train movements and guide traffic into safe patterns, as seen here from a railcar cab approaching the Texas Medical Center station at Dryden. But drivers habitually oblivious to safety ignore the traffic rules.
[Photo: Mike Harrington]

Reclaiming city's surface for safe mobility

The basic question seems to come down to this: Will the surface areas of Houston and other American cities be made safe for transit, pedestrians, cyclists, and other inhabitants, or will they be conceded to domination by motor vehicle movement and the whims and prerogatives of motorists, to behave as they desire?

All but two of the recent LRT-related accidents have been what the media – and officialdom in general – would consider minor. Yet, in the routine traffic melee, many such "fender-benders" and even more substantial property-damage accidents occur daily, throughout Houston (and every American city, for that matter) – and they are typically ignored in the media. They don't spark anti-car or anti-highway campaigns.

It is another frightening indicator of today's "car culture" that serious motor vehicle accidents in cities like Houston – even major injury and fatal accidents – are so commonplace they're hardly met with a shrug. They're barely mentioned in the media, and, if at all, they're stuck in a tiny section of the back pages of the paper. Meanwhile, every single relatively small accident – mainly "fender-benders" – resulting from wantonly oblivious and even arrogant motorists colliding with Houston Metro's light rail trains has been given prime-time play on the TV news and frontpage headlines in the daily paper. Houston's new mayor issued a stern warning to Metro, and the Chronicle ran an in-depth analysis comparing Houston's LRT-involved accident tally with that of other cities with LRT.

The contrast in attitudes toward "ordinary" traffic accidents and motor vehicle encounters with LRT trains is highlighted by a highway accident in late January 2004, reported in the Chronicle: A motorist killed one person standing at the roadside, then continued on her way, managing to then hit a truck. The incident merited a tiny mention in the Area Briefs section of the Chronicle. No investigative report on Houston's motor vehicle accident rate and how it compares with other cities'. No stern warning of concern from the mayor's office.

This kind of accident is accepted as routine. This is a hallmark of the car culture – the assumption that the automobile is supreme, the motorist is ruler of the city's surface, and the day-to-day traffic smash-ups (and casualties) are just the commonly "accepted" price to be routinely paid.

But things in 21st-century America are changing. Surface railway traffic of all varieties seems likely to continue increasing, as well as higher-speed, reserved-pathway transit (LRT, regional rail, "BRT", etc.). Transit – including LRT – is far safer than motor vehicle travel, and it makes sense to provide cost-effective surface alignments to speed up transit services which can attract the motoring public from their vehicles. (See Transit Mode Safety: Rail Leads and Fatality Rates: Transit Passengers vs. Motor Vehicle Occupants.)

It would seem prudent to respond to this changing mobility lifestyle with, for example, an ongoing media campaign to continually alert and educate the public – motorists in particular – that the days of freewheeling, unfettered motor vehicle dominance of the surface areas of cities are fading. Motorists should be made aware that. In today's changing urban environment, they're going to obey the rules, or they're going to suffer very serious consequences.

Surface railway operation, such as this MetroRail train on Houston's Main St., as well as other forms of higher-speed surface transit like "BRT", is on the increase. Transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists need to reclaim the surface of America's cities for safe mobility and urban livability.
[Photo: Mike Harrington]

What's needed is accountability. What's needed is to put a stop to the chaotic, murderous free-for-all motorists have been "entitled" to on the streets of Houston and all other US cities. Streets need calming, drivers need calming, and livability must be returned to cities. Motorists must be held accountable and the attitude of accommodating their whims and their cavalier attitude toward traffic rules and safety must end.

This article has adapted material from the Katy Corridor online discussion list, the Moving Houston online discussion list, the LRPPro online discussion list, the LightRail_Now online discussion list, and the Public Transport Progress Email distribution list.

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Updated 2004/02/06

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