New York police departments are heightening their presence and increasing ticket citations at railroad crossings. The clampdown comes in the wake of several train-car crashes that have afflicted the state since February.
The most notable tragedy struck on February 3, when a Metro-North train slammed into an SUV sitting on the tracks in Valhalla, NY and killed six people, including the SUV’s driver. Since the deadly crash, Metropolitan Transportation Authority police have issued six times as many tickets for railroad crossing infractions than they did over the same period last year.
And New York is not the only place in the United States to experience catastrophic train collisions this year. Over the past two months alone, a Metrolink commuter train in California collided with a pickup truck, killing the train’s engineer; an Amtrak train in North Carolina struck a tractor-trailer, injuring 55 people; and a light rail train in Los Angeles slammed into a car turning onto the tracks, injuring 20 people.
Though train-car collisions are not unusual, the recent uptick has prompted the Federal Railroad Administration to announce a nationwide safety campaign that calls on all police departments to ramp up traffic citations at railroad crossings. According to Sarah Feinberg, the Railroad Administration’s acting administrator, “94% of grade crossing accidents are linked to a driver’s behavior,” and the Administration will be conducting an audit to determine how many law enforcement agencies respond.
But many jurisdictions are already running ticketing campaigns, including New York. “Nobody likes to get a ticket, but enforcement is part of education, and educating the public is important in railroad crossing safety,” says Police Chief Paul Oliva of Mount Pleasant, which includes Valhalla.
Among the types of offenses that the police will issue citations for is the crossing of rail road tracks before there is enough room on the other side for the car to clear the crossing. The hope is that with an increase in traffic citations for this and other similar offenses, there will come an increase in driver awareness of train crossing safety measures, as well as the prevention of fatal train-car crashes in the future.
“You just have to be aware of your surroundings,” says a Valhalla local who crosses the tracks twice a week. “The signs are there, the gates are there. You don’t stop on the tracks. You don’t cross until you know you can get across. It’s a basic driver skill.”
But Joyce Rose, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, tends to think that this “basic skill” is becoming a fading skill. “People have to know what these warning signs and devices mean and what they are supposed to do when they see them,” says Rose. “I think sometimes people don’t know. They may not have been taught [these things] in driver’s ed or they may have forgotten, or they are impatient or distracted.” So, it seems as though the Administration’s thinking is that even if it is nothing other than the fear of a traffic ticket that will help raise awareness, help people remember, become less distracted or less impatient, at least more lives may be spared due to safer railroad crossing practices.