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NYC officials are trying to stop the deadly social media trend of 'subway surfing'

A screenshot from a video uploaded to TikTok by @big.ebk, which has since been removed, shows subway surfers in New York City. Four teens have died performing the dangerous stunt in the city this year.
Screenshot by NPR
A screenshot from a video uploaded to TikTok by @big.ebk, which has since been removed, shows subway surfers in New York City. Four teens have died performing the dangerous stunt in the city this year.

Officials in New York City are trying to put a stop to people climbing aboard the roof of moving subway cars, also known as "subway surfing," amid a rise in accidental deaths. They've repeatedly asked social media companies to take down videos of the stunts to discourage future incidents.

New York Police Department Chief of Transit Michael Kemper noted the rise in deaths during a public safety briefing last month. He said four teens died in the first six months of 2023, with two more seriously injured. By comparison, there were five suspected subway surfing fatalities between 2018 and 2022, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) spokesperson Michael Cortez.

Kemper also said there have been "dozens of apprehensions and over 70 arrests" involving subway surfing this year. NYPD officers have also gone door to door and to speak with the parents and guardians of identified subway surfers in hopes they can stop their loved ones from participating in the dangerous stunt.

"Our message is clear to anyone who's considering subway surfing. Don't do it," Kemper said at the press briefing. "Not only is it illegal and you will be arrested if caught, but people are literally dying while doing it. The subway system is an unforgiving place and one slip, one misjudgment or one false move, while that is usually followed with life altering or life-ending outcomes, there are no do-overs."

New York City Mayor Eric Adams called on social media companies to ban videos of the dangerous trend after a 14-year-old boy died and another was critically injured while subway surfing in Brooklyn in late June.

"Social media must be socially responsible. Subway Surfing kills. We need everyone to be a part of ending this dangerous threat," Adams tweeted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

In response to the boy's death, TikTok issued a statement expressing condolences for the family, noting that the trend predates social media and that 40,000 "safety professionals" work to remove harmful content, Gothamist reported.

NPR reached out to TikTok for comment and asked if the platform would comply with the city's request. TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe asked NPR for examples of subway surfing on the social media platform, to which NPR provided two. Rathe did not respond and didn't comment on whether the company would ban the videos on its platform.

The two videos NPR cited to TikTok have since been removed, but the screenshot at the top of this page shows a still from a video uploaded by @big.ebk on TikTok, that depicted subway surfers in New York City.

NPR also reached out to YouTube and Meta, parent of Facebook and Instagram, but neither company responded before publication.

The NYPD told NPR that it only recently started logging subway surfing cases, but has recorded 82 instances between Jan. 1 and July 9 of this year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.