On Friday night, I was sitting with my wife and some friends on the front porch of Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge along Main Street near Alabama. We were enjoying a cool evening and celebrating the birthday of a friend. The METRORail was zipping by with frequency, often carrying cowboy hat-clad travelers coming from the rodeo. At one point, a guy in a white SUV, apparently tired of having to wait for drivers in front of him, jumped the bumps that separate the rail tracks from Main Street, sped past four or five cars on the tracks and ran a red light. The Red Line passed literally seconds later probably less than 100 feet behind him.
The Houston Chronicle reported a second man this week was killed by the light rail after he stepped in front of the Red Line. The first was apparently a suicide and this remains under investigation. But, what caught my eye were some of the eye-popping statistical numbers about Houston's driver-rail accidents. Despite being much smaller than many others around the country, we rank highest in both accidents and fatalities involving our light rail system. It has become clear that our biggest problem isn't just the METRORail or its proximity to drivers. It's the drivers in Houston who repeatedly break the law.
We should know. We all drive on area highways. In addition to the incident above, on any given day I see people run lights, speed recklessly, stare at their phones while driving, blow through stop signs and school zones. I once saw a woman driving on the West Loop at about 75 mph while staring into a mirror to put mascara on, her other elbow pushed against the wheel for steering while she clung to a cheeseburger.
It reminds me of that scene from Liar Liar when Jim Carrey, forced to tell the truth and confronted by a client who is in trouble with the police yet again, yells into the phone, "Stop breaking the law, asshole!"
Two weeks ago, I made the case for closing portions of Main and Fannin to traffic as a means of preventing accidents in two of the most vulnerable spots. It was the second time in the last five years I've suggested it and I'm certainly not alone in my belief it would be beneficial for METRO and for drivers. Still is that enough? Anything to stem the tide of vehicle-train accidents would be great, but we need to treat the cause, not just the symptoms.
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Maybe we have spent so much time in cars that we take our own safety for granted. But, Los Angeles, which has many more miles of rail and far fewer accidents involving it, is an even more driving obsessed city than Houston. At some point, we all have to look in the mirror and realize we are the problem.
Last week, I watched a guy zip down the emergency lane on the freeway during traffic and then force himself across five lanes of traffic nearly perpendicular to other drivers to get off the highway at his exit. I'm sure we've all been guilty of speeding or the occasional reckless moment on the road—granted, not as crazy as that lunatic—but most of these happen around other drivers who can allow us the right of way to do whatever stupid or dangerous thing we may choose.
Trains, however, can't swerve. They are clamped down to a track they travel over and over and over again every day. How is it we can't seem to figure out that turning in front of them or running a red light around them is a bad idea? The next time you read about a METRORail accident in the news, look to see who was at fault. I bet the report says, "The driver turned in front of the train suddenly," or "the driver was ticketed for failing to yield."
Let's face it, Houston doesn't have a train problem. We have a stupid driver problem.