Needless and premature death, whether by accident, war, illness, or murder, strikes our hearts as we wonder - what if that were me, my brother, my son or daughter? What has the world irretrievably lost? Every such loss is a tragedy in itself. Multiplied by dozens, the loss becomes numbing and almost unbearable.
People have compared the losses at Virginia Tech with the daily tragedy that is Iraq - and rightly so. Today we hear of another bombing with over a hundred lost - mothers, fathers, children irretrievably torn from their mortal existence, never again to feel the rain or hear the birds or laugh and have joy on this Earth.
But needless, tragic death is not restricted to war zones or gun violence. Every day in America brings senseless tragedy to families across the country. Tragedy that is, if not completely preventable, greatly reducible if only...
... if only we were willing to give up our cars.
The National Safety Council tracks and gathers statistics on accidental death and injury in the United States. Their recent output includes the Odds of Dying chart. Of the non-illness, non-suicide causes of death, firearm assault is a distant third to death by motor vehicle.
There are 120 tragic deaths every day in motor vehicle accidents, on average, and 6500 people injured. Roughly 15 people are killed for every billion vehicle-miles traveled, or about 9 deaths per billion passenger-miles. That's 4 times the death toll at Virginia Tech, every day. That's a "Titanic" every two weeks, a 9-11 every month, over 43,000 per year. 2.4 million people received a disabling injury from motor vehicle accidents in 2005.
In some way or other, every traffic death is preventable. Simple safety tips can help each of us individually - but they still don't control what those other guys may be doing - whether New Jersey governors or those sleepy or drunk drivers. But there is a solution...
Statistics consistently show less than 1 passenger fatality per billion passenger miles on well-run rail systems. Unfortunately, many people use rail systems to commit suicide, or cross in front of trains in violation of warnings - a number that bumps up the usually reported rail fatality rates a factor of 10 or more. Grade separated railways with their own right-of-way typically have tiny passenger fatality rates; the Japanese Shinkansen has operated for 40 years with 6 billion passengers, hundreds of billions of passenger-miles and not even one fatal accident.
Do we need any other reason for a massive switch of US transportation systems to rail? Every passenger mile that can switch from roads to rails allows us to eliminate 100% of its oil consumption, 90% of the CO2, and at least 90% of the traffic fatalities. What else are we waiting for?