Stop, look & listen

Posted on June 18, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

After two fatal accidents this spring at the same railroad crossing just south of Jonesboro, I read with satisfaction that safety arms would be installed there.

But then I read the details. The arms are expected to cost $250,000 and take 18 months to install. That’s stretching the old maxim about being a dollar short and a day late to its limits.

Everybody has seen railroad crossing arms. They appear to be long, light metal frames with attached flashing lights. They are operated by a small motor in a box that lifts and lowers the arms when trains approach (and trip a track circuit) and traverse the crossing.

Most of them appear to be the kind of thing a guy could construct in his garage, and yet the state has to shell out a quarter-million dollars and wait a year and a half to create a visible safety barrier on an obviously dangerous railroad crossing?

Undoubtedly one of the reasons for the hefty price tag is that crossing gates typically are purchased with that least scrutinous of currencies, government funds. It is the government, not the railroad, that decides which crossings get gates and when. Funding typically involves federal money, often covering 90 percent of the cost, with the balance coming from state or local coffers.

All told, that’s a fine formula for inflated pricing.

There’s little doubt that gates reduce accidents at crossings, as evidenced by a more than doubling of gated crossings in the past 30 years and a corollary reduction of the number of accidents. Statistically, there are relatively few fatal incidents involving railroad crossings considering the miles of track (more than 140,000), the mass of trains (often 6,000 tons) and the stopping distance required (more than a mile).

Arkansas had 44 railroad crossing collisions in 2009 that resulted in nine deaths, ranking us tied at eighth in the nation for collision fatalities, according to the Federal Railroad Administration,or FRA. California led the nation with 30 deaths. Conversely, Arkansas is one of only five states that did not have a trespass fatality in 2009.

I never realized I was a trespasser when, as youngsters, my friends and I frequently played around and on the tracks and parked trains in my little hometown. But since railroad tracks, trestles, yards and equipment are private property, all accidents, injuries and deaths occurring at locations other than crossings are considered trespassing on railroad rights-of-way.

Surprisingly, there were almost twice as many trespassing fatalities in 2009 (434) as crossing fatalities (248).

Trespassing fatalities include a wide range of incidents, which were detailed in a March 2008 FRA report analyzing 935 trespasser deaths between 2000 and 2004.

The report cover has a slogan at the bottom that reads, “Always expect a train,” but one of the unexpected aspects of the analysis was how commonly trains were used for suicide. In 167 of the 935 fatalities studied, the coroner or medical examiner used the word “suicide” or “intentional” in describing the incident. In another 49 cases, suicide was probable but not indicated on the coroner’s or medical examiner’s report.

That sum of 216 suicidal fatalities is only two behind the leading type of trespasser fatal incident, which is walking or standing on the tracks.

Perhaps not as unexpected was the finding that in more than half of trespasser fatality cases, and possibly as many as two-thirds, alcohol and/ or drugs were found to be present. In fact, the third largest type of fatal trespasser incident was sleeping or lying on the tracks, often as the result of drinking or drug use.

History has shown that creating barriers on bridges reduces the number of suicidal jumpers, but the scope and magnitude of the railroad system make wholesale efforts to install railway barriers impractical. And while gates are instrumental in reducing crossing collisions with trains, as long as they remain expensive, state governments will continue to install them only piecemeal, relying on traffic counts and other data to prioritize locations.

Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit outfit dedicated to reducing railroad deaths, was founded in 1972 in Idaho. Remarkably, following a six-week public awareness campaign, Idaho saw its number of crossing-related fatalities drop by 43 percent. A similar program in Kansas the next year reduced the collision rate by 26 percent.

Today, Operation Lifesaver programs have coordinators in all 50 states, with education being a strong focus as a method to save lives.

Federal statistics show that the overwhelming cause of collisions is failure of an automobile driver to yield, so a strong education push can help teach drivers that no risky behavior with a train is ever worth it.

There are fewer crossings every year, as some are closed and others are replaced with overpasses, but that reduced encounter with crossings also means that it’s easier to forget the time-proven safety steps of stop, look and listen.

Remember and share them.

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