I suppose I should have expected this story, after the tragedy at Mexican Hat, Utah last week. A bus returning to Phoenix, Arizona from a ski trip crashed, killing nine and injuring dozens.
Anyone glancing at page 1 of today’s Arizona Republic would have to be forgiven if they got the impression that travel by bus was incredibly dangerous. The headline blares: “THE RISK OF RIDING” (I”m not shouting, it was in all caps!); the graphic with large font colored type: “146 fatalities” (in very small print above, “1996-2005”. That’s 10 years!)
The story by Robert Anglen was entitled “Bus-safety shortcomings have drawn attention but little action“, but that was published in subtitle-sized type, subordinate to THE RISK OF RIDING.
Inside, there were four enormous pictures “In the first six days of 2008, four buses crashed in the U.S.”. Of course, in those same six days there were thousands of (other) grisly crashes, and hundreds of (other) traffic fatalities but none of them were pictured, or even mentioned — it’s all about the buses, and their obvious huge risks.
So, does traveling in a bus have risk? Of course. The story did make some attempt to compare the risks to general traffic, e.g. “There are 20 to 25 motor-coach deaths per year compared with 41,000 auto deaths”. Thats a good start. But then “The American Bus Association, a trade organization representing 1,000 motor-coach companies, estimates that there are 0.05 bus fatalities for every 100 million passenger miles traveled” was left hanging. To put this last number into context, the official overall US fatality rate is 1.46 per 100 million VMT (Vehicle miles traveled. NHTSA data here, and also note that Arizona rates are significantly worse). Since the number of occupants per vehicle overall hovers not much above 1, that makes traveling by bus about 30 TIMES SAFER than riding around in a car. (It probably implies that the motor-coach fatality rate is similar when compared on a per VMT basis, since they would tend to have large passenger loads)
In short, the story follows the perennial bias of ignoring or downplaying general traffic problems (largely automobile). While causing needless anxiety and leading to worsen the very problem resulting in more fatalities — “why doesn’t my child’s bus have seat belts? I better drive them myself instead”