As Florida debates SunRail, one agency warns of the risks of crossing train tracks.

Operation Lifesavers says people underestimate the risks of driving over railroad crossings, like this one on Virginia Avenue in Orlando.

WASHINGTON – With the high speed rail project likely dead and Central Florida now turning its attention to the SunRail commuter rail line, a non-profit agency is trying to raise public awareness of a very different issue when it comes to trains.
Operation Lifesaver Inc. believes an improving economy is bringing more people out on the roads, and that may be why, the agency says, there’s also been an increase in vehicle or pedestrian collisions with trains.
“Florida is one of the states in the top five for people getting killed walking or driving on the tracks,” said Marmie T. Edwards, spokesperson for the agency based in Washington D.C. “It appears that the economy is getting a little bit better, and as it gets better, there’s more cars on the road.”
The number of vehicle-train and pedestrian collisions, deaths and injuries increased in 2010, according to preliminary statistics by the Federal Railroad Administration.
“The statistics show that as America pulls out of the recession and people are driving more, we need to redouble our efforts to educate the public about taking unnecessary risks at highway-rail crossings, because any incident is one too many,” said OLI President Helen Sramek. “Another disturbing finding is the continued rise in pedestrian incidents on or near train tracks.”
The FRA statistics show there were 2,004 vehicle-train collisions in the U.S. in 2010, up 4.2 percent from the 1,924 incidents in 2009.
Those collisions resulted in 260 deaths and 810 injuries, with crossing deaths up 5.3 percent and crossing injuries rising 9.8 percent from the 247 deaths and 738 injuries in 2009.
States with the highest number of crossing collisions last year were Texas, Illinois, California, Indiana and Louisiana, while states with the most pedestrian-train casualties in 2010 were California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York.
Edwards said there’s good reason for her agency to target Florida, with its warm weather and steady tourism traffic.
“Florida is a warm state, so people spend more time outside, so their exposure to train tracks might be greater,” she said.
In the past few years, Florida lawmakers have been debating two proposed rail projects for the central part of the state. One was a high speed train from Orlando to Tampa, but the project died when Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money to build it.
The other project is SunRail, a 61-mile commuter train that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then to Poinciana. Gov. Scott has said his office is still reviewing the state’s funding commitment to this project.
Edwards said her agency is not in favor of, or opposed to, trains as a means of transporting passengers or commercial products.
“We’re not pro or con anything, we just don’t want people making stupid decisions,” she said.
Operation Lifesaver – which Edwards said has been around since 1972 — is an educational agency whose mission is to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights of way. A national network of certified volunteers provides free presentations on rail safety across the country.
“What we try to do,” Edwards said, “is go out to public schools and truck driving schools, and meet with truck drivers and school bus drivers, and try to reach people who would be at risk for hitting train tracks.”
Edwards said sometimes these accidents become a matter of complacency. People in certain neighborhoods drive over train tracks so often that they come to expect a train will never pass by at the same time they’re driving through.
“They don’t think a train will come,” she said. “And there are some people who take risks and they may try to go around the tracks if they think it will take too long for a train to pass. That’s why the gates are down. There’s a reason for it. Some people just ignore that.”
She called this “The hopeful American – ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ ”
But too often it does. According to the agency’s Web site, www.oli.org, figures by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that vehicle miles traveled in 2010 reached the third-highest on record, meaning more people were traveling on roadways last year. That heightens the risk of an incident occurring, Sramek said.
At least 451 pedestrians were killed and 382 injured while trespassing on train tracks last year, compared to 417 deaths and 343 injuries in 2009. Total trespasser deaths rose 8.2 percent and trespasser injuries went up 11.4 percent in 2010.
“Despite overall gains in rail safety in the past decade, these latest statistics show that Operation Lifesaver must continue its work to educate drivers and pedestrians about the dangers present around tracks and trains,” Sramek said.
Florida is also a concern for Operation Lifesaver, Edward said, because so many tourists hit the roads in the Sunshine State, and they may not even be familiar with where the train tracks are – or even paying attention.
“One of the things we’ve been mentioning quite a bit is how distracted people get when they’re on vacation,” she said. “In Florida, those tourists have a lot of things on their mind. They’re on vacation and they’re not thinking ‘Oh, maybe there’s a train over here.’ “
Getting the message out isn’t easy. There have been public service announcements urging motorists not to drink to drive or text and drive, and to wear their seatbelts. But Operation Lifesaver lacks the funding to do a similar national, state or regional campaign.
“We are a very small non-profit,” she said. “We don’t have the funding to really blanket Orlando with this kind of public service announcement. Putting a message up in Orlando would be an expensive proposition.”
That’s why Operation Lifesaver relies on getting the word out any way in can, including through the local media, that people should never let their guard down when approaching a train track – even if they’ve never had an incident there in the past.
“That’s what we do,” she said. “We focus on education.”

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