There is no doubt that San Francisco’s cable cars are one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. For decades, imagery of the cable cars traveling the steep hills of San Francisco has been ingrained in the minds of most Americans. While the cars are no doubt iconic, what many people don’t know is that they are also one of the most dangerous forms of mass transit, according to a recent U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) report.
During its research, the DOT found that cable cars are involved in approximately one accident each month. This statistic makes cable cars one of the most accident-prone forms of transit in the United States per mile, costing the city of San Francisco millions. In fact, during 2012, federal transportation figures listed 16 accidents and 19 injuries involving cable cars. These numbers are the second highest in 10 years.
Over the last decade, San Francisco authorities reported over 126 accidents involving cable cars and 151 personal injuries that are cable car related. The specific types of injuries vary, listing bruises, broken bones, lacerations and severed feet among others. Recently, seven people received personal injuries when a San Francisco cable car suddenly stopped after it hit a small bolt that was in the track.
On the Other Hand
Though statistics show a high number of accidents that involve cable cars, Joe Thompson thinks they have an unfair reputation for danger. Thompson is one of the world’s foremost leading experts on the past and present of cable cars and brings up some excellent points in defense of the cable car.
“I think cable cars have an unfair reputation for danger for a few reasons,” says Thompson.
“The system is much safer now than it was before the great rebuilding in 1982-1984. The curves are more gradual, the cars are in better condition, the tracks and car wheels are better so derailments are rare. In places like Columbus Avenue, the tracks are placed so the cars don’t have to cut across so many traffic lanes.”
“The crews are very well trained and have better morale than any other Muni division. I haven’t seen any reliable statistics, but I suspect that in terms of passenger-miles, the accident rate on the cable cars isn’t much worse than the rest of Muni, but every cable car accident seems to wind up in the Chronicle and on radio and television,” Thompson continued.
As for specifics, Thompson offered a list of the top three reasons he believes cable cars get a bad rap. Those reasons are as follows:
- They operate in some of the most congested streets in the city.
- Since the cable cars are unfamiliar to most riders, the passengers often fail to pay enough attention to what they are doing, so they don’t hold on or they lean out too far when they are hanging on the sideboards. They also jump off before the car has come to a stop. The crew tries to get them behave, but at times it can be like herding cats.
- The cable cars represent late 19th Century technology on the streets of the 21st Century. They can’t stop as quickly as a bus, especially when the tracks are wet. If they get cut cut off going up a hill above a certain gradient, they have to back down.
While there are always two sides to the story, one thing is for sure: Cable cars are here to stay. They are uniquely San Francisco and serve the city’s masses on a daily basis. The important thing to remember when riding a cable car is safety. Be aware of your surroundings and take every precaution to arrive safely.