Why Are We So Afraid of Being Hit by a Subway Train?

How something so statistically unlikely managed to captivate our imaginations.

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TWULocal100

In the next few weeks, New Yorkers will start to see a different-looking Metro Card. The familiar blue letters on a burnt-gold face will appear mottled with drops of blood. On the back side, the friendly PSA makes way for an image of the Grim Reaper cloaked in the Metropolitan Transit Authority logo. "Use at your own risk," it warns.

It’s a flier, distributed by members of the MTA’s largest union, urging New Yorkers to sign a petition for lower train speeds entering stations.

There are a million ways to die in the city, and getting hit by a subway train is one of them. It happens just a few dozen times a year, and it happened again today. But after two high-profile subway murders this winter, one of which was controversially displayed on the front page of the New York Post, the perception of the danger has grown.

As the Transport Workers Union seeks support for slower trains, automatic braking mechanisms, and eyes on crowded platforms, the MTA has proposed both subway track sensor technology and a pilot program testing protective barriers on platforms, the latter of which would cost more than a million dollars per station.* City Council Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca called the recent deaths "a wake-up call."

the way the subway runs, and how much it costs.

And yet, subway deaths remain exceedingly rare. The fatality rate has not changed significantly over the last decade. Of the 55 fatalities on the subway tracks in 2012, 19 were suicides. The remaining 36 accidental deaths on the New York City subway in 2012 occurred on 1.66 billion subway rides. That’s one death for every 46 million rides.*

For infrequent riders, death on the rails is less likely than being hit by lightning. If you’re a twice-a-day commuter, you’re likely to be killed once every 100,000 years. (NB: these risks are not the same for train drivers, who are lucky to go five years without a "12-9", the code for someone under a train.)

A significantly more dangerous feature of city life is car traffic. Even the most dedicated mass transit commuters are twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car than a train. One in 50,000 New Yorkers is killed by a car each year, and one in five hundred is injured. (If you haven't been hit by a car this year, one of your Facebook friends likely has.)

So why do deaths on transit so captivate the imagination of riders, officials and the media?

For one thing, the MTA, promising new safety policies, does not seem eager to counter the perception that subway collisions are cause for concern.

That wasn’t always the case. For most of its recent history, the MTA has been fighting against a public image problem in the subway, albeit one of a slightly different nature. It wasn’t the trains people feared, but the crime that occurred in and around them. Fueled by the Bernard Goetz shooting in 1984, the danger of New York City subways became a national obsession.

The MTA found the reputation hard to shake. Subway crime was indeed up – in the worst year, 1982, there were 15,364 felonies on the subway – but New Yorkers were still more likely to be a victim in the city as a whole than on the subways. Yet the perceived danger of the subways was much greater. More than half of New York subway riders, in 1984, estimated they would be robbed on the train within the year.

Jim Pickerell, EPA via Wikimedia Commons. April 1974.

At that time, officials and onlookers put forth a number of theories for why fear seemed to stick to the subway. One was its visual presence in pop culture, through both sensationalist media coverage and violent films like Death Wish and The Warriors. In 1994, the MTA decided to restrict the filming of violent scenes set in the subway, saying they gave people the wrong impression.

But could a cultural association explain the recent spike of interest in subway deaths and the “fearmongering” reaction from public officials? Whatever feelings of dread were inspired by the Post photo, it seems unlikely that our railroad-death memories of Tolstoy and old Westerns have come bubbling back to the surface.

A more convincing idea of the period is the "second neighborhood" theory, coined by Thomas Reppetto, the president of the Citizen’s Crime Commission during the 1980s. Here’s the concept: though the subway system is hundreds of miles long, through distinctive, uniform design features, any station seems instantly, intimately familiar.

For this reason, accidents and incidents tend to reverberate through the whole system. A front-page subway murder doesn’t enter our memory at one station, but at every station. So while an above-ground murder or a car accident in Times Square remains localized, a feature of a dangerous neighborhood, a man pushed to his death at the Times Square Subway station seems to occur everywhere at once.

"The sense of personal relevance is much higher," says Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who studies risk perception. That perception can override logic in determining our reaction to events.

"Gun violence often takes place in certain districts in one city which one can avoid, and we tend to ignore it," Slovic says. "In Chicago or Washington D.C. there's a lot of violence taking place, but people have the sense that they can control it by not going to these places. But if you need to use the subway for transportation, then this is happening in your daily route."

Or at least it seems to be, even when it's not. In Israel, as Eric Jaffe wrote in November, researchers interviewed hundreds of commuters in Jerusalem and Haifa after terror attacks on buses in those cities. Even in 2002, one of the deadliest years on record, mass transit commuters were still statistically safer than drivers.

For the most part, residents of both cities were aware of that. But historically, risk perception -- a gut reaction rather than a rational thought process -- is especially high in situations, like on transit, when people do not feel in control.

In Haifa, nearly a third of respondents said they had stopped riding the bus for some time after an attack. In Jerusalem, that figure was closer to a quarter. And over 75 percent of those who changed their routine switched to cars -- half to their own cars, another third to taxis. (If the attack took place on their regular bus line, more than half of respondents switched to car travel.)

Call it the "it could have been me” theory. Particular elements of infrastructure, repeated but entirely distinctive, endow accidents with eerie universality. It's like all sidewalk grates, subway platforms and fire escapes are linked by some supernatural circuit board of fear, making accidents resonant and relevant in a way a car crash never is. One manhole explodes, and everyone has manholia.

When something goes wrong on the subway, it’s hard not to think: it could have been me. Indeed, it could have. But it’s extremely unlikely.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Transport Workers Union, and misstated the number of suicides on the system last year: it was 19, not 33, via Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute. Thirty-three was the number of suicides and attempted suicides.

Metro Card images via TWU Local 100.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.