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Baltimore,MD--3/17/15 The Nursery Road Light Rail stop. The latest data from the Maryland Transit Administration, for fiscal 2014, show a decline in overall ridership, with the majority of the decline coming on local bus routes. Declines were also seen on Metro, light rail and two of three MARC commuter train lines. Lloyd Fox/Sun Photographer #3147
Baltimore,MD--3/17/15 The Nursery Road Light Rail stop. The latest data from the Maryland Transit Administration, for fiscal 2014, show a decline in overall ridership, with the majority of the decline coming on local bus routes. Declines were also seen on Metro, light rail and two of three MARC commuter train lines. Lloyd Fox/Sun Photographer #3147 (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The latest accounting of carnage on the nation's highways should be setting off alarms — and causing greater investment in safer modes of travel. U.S. highway fatalities rose to 35,092 in 2015, according to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration accounting released in August, a 7.2 percent increase from the year before and the biggest jump in 50 years.

Experts have offered any number of explanations for this, from lower gasoline prices and more congested roads to distracted drivers in the smartphone era, as well as the usual culprits, speeding and drunk driving. But what makes the trend especially troubling is that federal and state authorities have been working on this problem for decades — cars have more safety features, EMT workers and hospital emergency rooms are better equipped for trauma patients and roads are better and more safely designed than ever before.

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But what if the central problem is that Americans are simply too car dependent? What if the best way to reduce fatal collisions was not to get in a car in the first place? What if people were offered a convenient, safer alternative?

Those very questions are raised by a recent report, "The Hidden Traffic Safety Solution: Public Transportation," that found that Americans can reduce their risk of being in an accident by 90 percent simply by taking mass transit rather than getting in a car. Transit-oriented communities are essentially five times safer than other neighborhoods, the authors found, because of a much-lower per capita traffic casualty rate.

The report, prepared for the American Public Transportation Association, notes that people don't necessarily have to take transit each day to receive some benefit from this phenomenon. Cities where residents make 50 or more transit trips each year have 50 percent fewer traffic fatalities than cities where residents use transit for 20 trips or fewer. That's a modest difference in transit usage, given that most people average 1,350 trips of any kind in a year, but it yields a major benefit.

The findings should come as no surprise given that buses, trains, subways and other modes of public transit have always had much lower accident rates than cars. What's more surprising is that manner in which the public has become inured to highway fatalities. If the deadly crashes continue to climb at their current rate, they could surpass suicide to become the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Even now, the annual total is about the same as the entire population of Annapolis.

That should have Americans clamoring for action. Yet the federal government has, if anything, retreated in its support of mass transit. APTA estimates that the backlog of repair needs for various transit systems now tops $86 billion — with nearby Washington, D.C.'s dysfunctional Metro system a poster child for the cost of neglect.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to deep-six the $2.9 billion Red Line project — a choice to essentially bury and forget a nearly $300 million investment in planning, design and engineering for an east-west light rail system — has left the Baltimore area more car dependent than ever. That's inconvenient for motorists, but it's a tragedy for low-income city residents who can't afford a car and who struggle to find ways to commute to far-flung employment centers.

Yet safety is only one of the benefits of transit. It's less polluting and more energy efficient as well. It promotes economic development and community revitalization. And younger workers often prefer transit to driving — surveys show a majority of Millennials want to live and work somewhere that's convenient to public transportation (making it a top three factor in deciding where to live, according to one poll). Across the country, transit ridership is up — about 39 percent since 1995 even as the U.S. population has increased just 21 percent.

Obviously, the country needs safer roads, but the failure to invest sufficiently in public transit is more than just bad planning — it's bound to cost lives. Surely, a nation that can grieve each September for the 3,000 who died on 9/11 can save a few tears for the eleven-fold more killed on the highways each year and help spare other families from experiencing such loss.

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