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Archive for October, 2015

As you may recall from last month, the disabled community was furious over plans to build plans to build a brand new Amtrak station in Roanoke (VA) without level-platform boarding. The VDOT was oblivious to an FRA rule that went into effect in 2012 requiring level-platform boarding at new stations, and are now in a bit of a pickle:

On Sept. 30, the Federal Railroad Administration told the project team that federal officials believe a raised platform that would permit level boarding, without the need for wheelchair lifts, is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project team includes Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The state has budgeted nearly $100 million for the project, about 10 percent of it for the platform and a related train servicing facility.

Jennifer Mitchell, who directs the department, said Oct. 21 the state prefers raised platforms and the level boarding they offer. But in Roanoke, “the site just won’t allow it,” she said.

The project team wants to build a low platform consisting of a concrete or asphalt slab near ground level. Riders would use a portable mechanical lift on the platform or stairs inside the car to board.

The state tried to argue that a high-level platform would obstruct freight traffic, even though the platform is on a siding. The FRA wasn’t convinced:

In late August, Amtrak, on behalf of the state, told regulators that Roanoke qualified for a waiver, saying freight traffic “exists directly adjacent to the platform” planned along Norfolk Avenue.

The request seemed to be based on a plan to install about 1,700 feet of track specifically for Amtrak service next to Norfolk Southern’s existing freight lines next year. The platform, to be built next, would sit beside it. Norfolk Southern has said the railroad intends to run freight trains over the platform track except when a passenger train is at the platform.

But the federal rail agency didn’t appear to buy the argument.

“We find that this is new construction of a platform track that diverges from the freight main,” the federal railroad agency said Sept. 30 in a position statement that remains unchanged. “Under these circumstances a level boarding platform is required.”

Virginia rail planners are still trying to pursue a waiver, and making threats that the project will be significantly delayed if it isn’t granted. However, the FRA rule is quite clear, and gross incompetence is no reason to grant a waiver.

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rob_fordToronto has two systems of justice. One for normal folk, and another for crack-smoking drunk-driving Mayors:

Toronto police officers helped Rob Ford on “multiple occasions” after stopping his vehicle while he was still mayor, rather than charge him with driving impaired, his former chief of staff says.

The allegation emerged Saturday in an excerpt from a soon to-be-released book by Mark Towhey titled Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable. “Two senior members of the Toronto Police Service had told me officers had pulled over the mayor’s car late at night on multiple occasions and driven him home rather than charging him for driving under the influence.”

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There are two popular ways for measuring the safety benefit of bicycle helmets. One method is to look at hospital admission records, comparing the relative number of helmeted and non-helmeted patients. The use of hospital records is an indirect measure, because researchers don’t have reliable data on the number of helmeted cyclists in the general population. Due to this limitation, researchers guesstimate risk exposure rates, which is difficult.

The other method is to study the effect of mandatory helmet laws. A time-series analysis of crash-data before and after implementation of a helmet law provides a direct measure of helmet effectiveness. This is the preferred method because it covers a much larger population in real-world conditions (without having to infer risk exposure rates). Time-series studies of helmet laws in Australia, Canada, and Spain have found no discernible impact on bicycle safety.

When direct measurements of helmet laws failed to find any safety benefit, that should have ended helmet debates. But like any zombie idea, the helmet issue shambles along. Why is that? Perhaps one reason is the hospital case-control studies that promised huge safety benefit from helmets (as high as 85%). But what is the reason for the huge discrepancy between direct and indirect measurements?

One reason for the discrepancy may be due to a methodological error in the hospital case-control studies. That is according to a new paper, Overestimation of the effectiveness of the bicycle helmet by the use of odds ratiosby Th. Zeegers. It was presented at the 2015 International Cycling Conference held last month in Hanover, Germany.

Zeegers argues that case-control studies overestimate the risk of cycling for the control (i.e. non-helmeted cyclists) thereby exaggerating the benefit of helmets. He then re-analyzed data from three popular helmet studies. After correcting for the error, he found that the supposed benefit of bike helmets completely vanished:

Due to lack of data on exposure rates, odds ratios of helmeted versus unhelmeted cyclists for head injury and other injuries on hospitalized victims are broadly used in case-control studies. A general necessary and sufficient condition can be formulated rigorously, for which odds ratios indeed equal risk ratios. However, this condition is not met in case-control studies on bicycle helmets. As a consequence, the real risk of cycling with a helmet can be underestimated by these studies and therefore the effectiveness of the bicycle helmet can be overestimated. The central point is that a wrong estimate of the risk for non-head injuries (the controls) paradoxically can lead to an overestimation of the usefulness of the helmet in protecting against head injuries.

Three cases could be found in the literature with sufficient data to assess both risk ratios and odds ratios: the Netherlands, Victoria (Australia) and Seattle (U.S.A). In all three cases, the problem of overestimation of the effectiveness of the helmet by using odds ratios did occur. The effect ranges from small (+ 8 % ) to extremely large ( > + 400 %). Contrary to the original claim of these studies, in two out of three cases the risk of getting a head injury proved not to be lower for helmeted cyclists. Moreover, in all three cases the risk of getting a non-head injury proved to be higher for cyclists with a helmet.

It must be concluded that any case-control study in which the control is formed by hospitalized bicyclists is unreliable and likely to overestimate the effectiveness of the bicycle helmet. As a direct consequence, also meta-analyses based on these case-control studies overestimate the effectiveness of the bicycle helmet. Claims on the effectiveness of the bicycle helmet can no longer be supported by these kind of studies. This might explain the discrepancy between case-control studies and other studies, such as time-analysis. It is recommended to use other methods to estimate the risk ratio for the bicycle helmet, along the lines described in this article.

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Justice is Blind

Here is another one of those outrageous cases, where a driver can hit and kill a cyclist without consequence:

The felony conviction for an attorney who killed a Chinese tourist in a hit-and-run crash in 2011 was reduced to a misdemeanor by an Alameda County judge on Friday over “strenuous objection” by prosecutors, according to the district attorney’s office.

Hayward Judge Michael Gaffey also changed the terms of the sentence he handed down to Spencer Freeman Smith just two weeks ago, much to the chagrin of an American friend of the man Smith killed.

“Obviously, I am not a judge or a lawyer but, for me, using common sense, it’s an outrageous decision,” said Dr. Arnold Owens of Oakland. “Everything has gone so much in favor of the defendant, it seems like some shenanigans are going on.”

Smith, 36, was living in San Ramon working as a San Francisco labor attorney on March 12, 2012 when, after a night of drinking with a paralegal from his firm, he fatally struck 57-year-old Chinese financial adviser Bo Hu on Dougherty Road in Dublin, prosecutors say. Hu was in the country for his fiancee’s relative’s graduation and was killed while he was walking a bicycle.

Smith did not stop or even brake at the scene and was apprehended by Dublin police investigators after they matched broken vehicle parts left at the scene to his brand new Mercedes-Benz sedan.

Oh, did I mention that the driver is blind in one eye? Incredibly, that fact worked in his favor:

“Anyone driving down that dark roadway could have hit Mr. Hu; it just happened to be Mr. Smith,” he said. “The judge recognized that this was a tragic accident and Mr. Smith was in a more vulnerable situation because he is blind in his right eye.”

The Judge did not even take away Smith’s driving license. Though I suppose the real question is why the California DMV gives out driving licenses to people blind in one eye.

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The Sierra Club has spent considerable effort fighting against development in San Francisco. Most recently, they endorsed Measure I, which would impose a housing moratorium in the Mission District.

And guess what happens when development is curtailed:

After 124 years in San Francisco, the Sierra Club is moving its headquarters across the Bay to Oakland because of rising rents in The City. The nonprofit on Thursday announced its headquarters will move from its current site at 85 2nd St. in San Francisco to 2101 Webster St. in Oakland in May 2016, after learning the group faced an annual rent hike of more than $1.5 million, said John Rizzo, political chair of the club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter.

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The National Troupe of Silly Bureaucrats (NTSB) wants to downgrade Washington Metro into a commuter-rail service. They are recommending that Metro be brought under FRA regulation:

Metro’s safety problems are so severe and persistent that federal officials should take a much stronger role in monitoring the subway system: reclassifying it as a commuter railroad so the transit agency can be subject to tougher regulations and penalties, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.

In an “urgent” recommendation to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the safety board’s chairman, Christopher A. Hart, cited years of “repeated and ongoing deficiencies” in Metro and said the current oversight process, involving the Federal Transit Administration, is inadequate and bound to keep failing.

Hart urged Foxx to ask Congress for the authority to reclassify Metro as a commuter railroad, which would remove the subway from the FTA’s safety oversight and place it under the “robust inspection, oversight, regulatory, and enforcement authority” of the larger, more powerful Federal Railroad Administration.

As if Washington Metro didn’t have enough problems.

Once it becomes an FRA-regulated railroad, Metro would need waivers just to run lightweight equipment. Metro would have to deal with all the ridiculous operating rules, like mandatory brake-checks at the start of reach run. The costs would be staggering.

He [Hart] also mentioned the Aug. 6 derailment of a train — which was not carrying passengers — between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations.

Right…because the FRA has done such a fantastic job of preventing derailments on MetroNorth and Amtrak.

The Federal Railroad Administration oversees “heavy” systems — freight and commuter lines, such as MARC and VRE, as well as Amtrak. But the closest system to an urban subway that the administration oversees is the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) line, a 14-mile rapid transit link between New Jersey and New York. About half of PATH’s tracks are underground.

In its recommendation, the NTSB uses PATH as the model for FRA regulation of Metro. But as I pointed out last year, FRA regulation of PATH has been an unmitigated disaster. FRA rules increase PATH operating costs by a factor of 3 — and haven’t done anything to improve safety.

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