DuPage railroad safety group aims to cut trespassing, suicide deaths in half

 
 
Posted9/19/2016 5:30 AM
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  • The DuPage Railroad Safety Council is looking to drastically reduce the number of deaths caused by people trespassing across railroad tracks.

      The DuPage Railroad Safety Council is looking to drastically reduce the number of deaths caused by people trespassing across railroad tracks. Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

  • Trespassing collisions

    Graphic: Trespassing collisions (click image to open)

Grief can paralyze and decimate. Or it can galvanize and inspire.

Since 1994, a group of suburban parents who lost children to collisions with trains has forged grief into work aimed at preventing other railway-related deaths. Last week, the DuPage Railroad Safety Council upped the ante.

"We've set a goal today ... that we are going to decrease trespasser and suicide deaths by 50 percent in the next 10 years," DuPage Railroad Safety Council Chairman Dr. Lanny Wilson said Thursday at a conference in Oak Brook.

Collisions at railway crossings have captured public interest and the federal government's attention for decades. As a result, crashes at crossings dropped in the United States from 10,769 in 1980 to 2,059 in 2015, with 816 fatalities in 1980 compared to 237 last year.

In contrast, trespassing occurrences on tracks away from crossings have barely budged, with 931 in 1980 and 881 in 2015. Trespassing deaths totaled 457 in 1980 and reached 465 in 2015.

The Federal Railroad Administration only began reporting suicides involving trains in 2011. Suicides averaged 266 a year, with 296 in 2015.

With its latest target, the council has seized on a challenging problem to fix, Northwestern University transportation Professor Ian Savage said. He uses the analogy of the elephant in the room -- only "we don't know what the elephant looks like."

Who are trespassers? They can range from dog walkers to fishermen, scrap metal collectors to vandals, millennials posing for selfies, and students or Metra commuters taking shortcuts.

Suicide cases are also hard to generalize about, although recent data indicates the highest-risk category for intentional deaths is men in their 40s and 50s, Savage said.

Wilson, a Hinsdale physician whose daughter Lauren died in a crossing accident in 1994, said of the 50 percent goal: "This is just Day One. We've birthed this today. We've got to help it grow."

What's the next step? Experts at the conference shared ideas ranging from high-tech cameras to human interventions. Here are some examples:

Palatine police officers Andrew Olech, left, and Christopher Stearns watch pedestrians crossing the railroad track at the Palatine Metra Station last week. They were watching for drivers and people putting themselves in danger by illegally crossing the tracks.
  Palatine police officers Andrew Olech, left, and Christopher Stearns watch pedestrians crossing the railroad track at the Palatine Metra Station last week. They were watching for drivers and people putting themselves in danger by illegally crossing the tracks. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

• The BNSF Railroad is deploying drones flying above some trains in the Chicago area. The experiment, which started this year, has resulted in the detection of multiple trespassers with three arrests and 42 warnings, officials said.

• Cameras equipped with thermal imaging and motion sensors can detect when people are trespassing and apply technology to predict if someone is suicidal in enough time to alert train engineers and authorities.

• Researchers can use data analysis to identify trespassing hot spots, such as where popular cut-throughs are and when violations occur. That could lead to installing fencing in danger zones or deploying police at strategic times.

• Metra in 2015 began training workers to identify when someone is in distress and, in January, a foreman pulled a suicidal man from the tracks. One idea would be to partner with mental health organizations on a public awareness campaign and publicize crisis lines such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's (800) 273-8255 number.

The efforts of the DuPage group are getting attention in high places with National Transportation Safety Advisory Board Chairman Christopher Hart, who attended the conference, advising them to "hang in there and keep trying."

By video, Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feingold said that "as a culture and as a country, we simply haven't accepted that trains and railroad operations are dangerous. That's why what you are doing ... is so important."

To learn more about the council and its trespassing/suicide-prevention plan go to www.dupagerailsafety.org.

You should know

Don't be so speedy heading onto local expressways. IDOT is installing "speed indicator boards" that tell how fast you're traveling at expressway ramps with a history of crashes in the region. The boards will show up at the following ramps: northbound I-55 to the northbound Tri-State Tollway, southbound I-55 to Arsenal Road in Will County, northbound Route 53 to westbound Lake-Cook Road, northbound Route 53 to eastbound Lake-Cook Road and eastbound I-290 to eastbound Route 64/Route 20.

Upcoming

Speaking of citizens trying to improve safety, a public meeting is set for 7 tonight at Mount Prospect village hall. The topic is a problematic crosswalk at Central Road and Melas Park where a cyclist lost her life in June.

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