Photo by Dead Air.

The Obama administration is calling for federal safety oversight over the nation’s transit systems.

Clearly, the existing oversight is failing, at least in the Washington region, as many local oversight boards lack the resources or the teeth to promote meaningful safety. The Tri-State Oversight Committee not only ran into a brick wall named Alexa Dupigny-Samuels when it asked to monitor active tracks, but has no Web site, no contact information, and no staff.

Dupigny-Samuels is still safety chief and keeps her responsibilities, Metro insists, but she’s just getting added supervision from the police chief. Really? So what would one have to do to actually get responsibilities taken away or to be formally demoted?

Jim Graham joined the calls to welcome federal oversight. Richard Layman prefers a stronger regional oversight system. Either way, safety needs to be a top priority, and Metro has clearly fallen down on the job, as Dave Stroup has thoroughly documented in his ongoing series (1, 2, 3).

Nevertheless, it’s vital to ensure that safety oversight focuses on the big picture. Making transit safer is important. But there’s also such a thing as too much safety. Many argue that the Federal Railroad Administration over-regulates railroads. They require trains heavy enough to handle large crashes without even deforming. As a result, Amtrak’s Acela trains had to be reinforced with extra supports, making them heavier and slower, and causing them to break down much more often than their European counterparts.

A federal oversight board in charge of safety would have one mission: making transit safer. Would that lead to unreasonable unfunded mandates, forcing transit agencies to drastically cut service to pay for needed improvements? Would that lead to permanent slow-speed orders that make transit systems significantly slower than cars? After all, if a safety agency issues regulations that decrease deaths by two a year nationwide but also decrease ridership by a hundred thousand nationwide, that agency can point to the reduced deaths and say they’ve done their job.

If highway deaths increase as a result, they haven’t. BeyondDC calculated that Metrorail is 34 times safer than driving per passenger mile. Even one person is much safer still riding Metrorail than switching to driving. Commenters have pointed out that good driving can reduce crash risk somewhat. That’s true, to an extent. Of course, we don’t know if the people who switch are good drivers or bad. There’s also an argument that you can control your own risk on the road, instead of on Metro. So let’s hold Metro to a higher standard than driving. But how much higher? Ten times? A hundred?

There haven’t been calls for increased federal regulation of Secret Service vehicles, speed restrictions on Maryland Route 5, or mandating replacement of all old cars without side air bags. If a driver kills a pedestrian, police just wonder if the driver was criminally at fault, and if not, we shrug our shoulders and move on. That happens a few times a week just in this region. But when there’s one tragic train crash for the first time since 1982, the federal government steps in. We have federal regulation of auto crashworthiness, but not roadway design, which is the bigger culprit in many deaths.

It’d be great for Metro to replace the 1000-series cars. But that would cost billions they don’t have. Actually funding new cars would be best. What if that’s not possible? Shorten all trains to four cars? Double rush hour headways? Delete the Blue Line permanently?

Safety oversight could certainly bring a lot of good. It’s just just a capital issue. As Dave Stroup has written, some of the problems are organizational. Some involve processes. There does need to be some independent monitoring. And making people feel safe riding transit is absolutely vital to getting people to ride.

Ultimately, safety regulation is valuable as long as its net effect is to increase the safety of commuting overall, not just the safety of that one mode even if the regulation pushes people to a more dangerous mode. Instead of making the Federal Transit Administration responsible for transit safety, let’s make the safety regulation body (federal or regional) responsible for improving surface transportation safety in general. Let them issue recommendations for driving, bicycling, walking, transit and commuter rail safety. Measure their success based on one thing: the overall death rate in a metropolitan area from people moving about. That will ensure they focus on whatever is killing the most people, rather than whatever gets the biggest headlines.

If that’s not politically realistic, what else could we do to ensure that a federal or regional oversight board pushes for the right changes without going overboard and killing transit in the process?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.