Media and Expectations - Part 2 - Indian Railway Accidents

This is part 2 of a two part series

Part 1 · Part 2

As promised at the end of Part 1, I will list the number of people who were affected by these incidents that were heavily reported on in the Indian news media to the point where I was actually wondering whether it was even safe to travel in the Railways anymore. If I had only had a look at the numbers I am going to show you, I would never have had that fear.

The full data can be found here. The sources are listed at the end of this post.

First, let’s look at the list of deaths and injuries over a period of 5 years starting 2010 and ending 2017.

2010 222 464
2011 128 540
2012 94 89
2013 75 81
2014 69 181
2015 110 420
2016 153 382
2017 67 360
TOTAL 918 2517

That’s less than a thousand deaths and about 2500 injuries over a period of 8 years. Including the year in which there were so many reports about derailments and problems. How dangerous is travelling in the Indian Railways? One number will reassure you.

Every year, Indian Railways carries more than 8 billion passengers. Out of them, in their worst year, 222 people died. That’s an incredibly small number.

For comparison, WHO estimated in 2013 that about 207,000 people die each year because of road accidents in India. Put another way, an estimated 17 people die among 100,000 inhabitants each year. That is way way more than the total number of people who die in railway accidents.

So, trains are far safer than road travel. And air travel just had the safest year, last year. So, flights are safer than trains. There’s no need to feel panicked by the numbers that are being shown on TV every time a train derails.

Every step should be taken to bring this number down to zero. But realize that this is a safe mode of transport. That’s the take-away here.

My argument is that these numbers should have been part of every single story on TV about this topic. Isolated numbers make no sense to a viewer. When you show them the same numbers with context and a total that they can divide it by, they will realize how important the number is. I probably don’t need to explain this, but I want to be sure I am understood here. Say there is a fictional elevator and you want to find out how dangerous it is to get on it. You know this:

On average, 2 people have gotten injured every single week for the past 8 weeks

Now, if the elevator is used by only 10 people in a week, that’s very alarming. You should probably not get on the elevator and take the stairs.

But if it’s a big building where several people work and it’s used nearly 100,000 times or more, you don’t need to worry.

In either case, it’s very important that you find the problem and fix it. But institutions tend not to be very fast about solving some problems that are logistically complicated. In that case, you need to be able to make a realistic estimate of the danger you will be in when you make a decision. To do that, you need all the facts.

So, everyone who reports news, please please please mention the context next time you report a number. Mention the total, compare it to a similar number, help your audience understand the number you are reporting. You are doing a job that’s more important than the ratings your show gets.

P.S. Do watch the TV show The Newsroom (2012). It’s a really great story about what the business of reporting news is really about.