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How Design Could Help Prevent Subway Deaths

It’s a rare, if particularly awful, public health problem: people drunkenly falling onto subway tracks, then getting hit by a train. In Japan, the West Japan Railway Company, which oversees much of Japan’s commuter rail system, recently conducted a study to find out why intoxicated people ended up stumbling to their deaths on train tracks. The study’s conclusion is not only the opposite of what you might think, but strongly suggests that a simple design tweak might be enough to stop as many as 90% of such incidents.

Common sense would seem to suggest that drunk people fall onto the tracks because they stumble when walking parallel to the tracks. But over the course of the two-year study, the group discovered that, in over 136 incidents captured on video, 90% of the people who fell on train tracks were actually sitting on a bench right before their accident occurred. Almost every time, the same thing happened: Seconds before falling onto the tracks, the victim would lurch suddenly to his or her feet, march resolutely forward as if he knew exactly what he were doing, then topple directly off the end of the platform. Only 10% of drunks fell off the platform any other way.


What’s the solution? West Japan Railway is considering a sweeping reorientation of all of its subway benches so that they are now perpendicular to the tracks. It is hoped that with the new configuration, drunk passengers will stumble down the platform, not face-first into the third rail.

You can read more about the West Japan Railway Company at Spoon Tamago.

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