Fatal Illinois Train Crashes on the Rise

January 20th, 2011

As 2011 dawns, Railroad Safety advocates are discouraged to learn that train accidents – and fatalities from such accidents – increased in 2010.  There were increased fatalities in both major types of train accidents:  train-automobile collisions and pedestrian accidents.  According to statistics compiled and shared by the Illinois Commerce Commission, in Illinois between January and November of 2010, there were 17 people killed in train-automobile accidents and 10 people killed in train-pedestrian accidents.

This increase ends a recent trend of decreasing fatalities in the state each year.  As to train-automobile deaths, there were only 10 such deaths in all of 2009, 15 in 2008, 16 in 2007, 18 in 2006 and 18 in 2005.  As to train-pedestrian fatalities, there have not been this many such deaths since 12 pedestrians were killed by trains in 2007.

The total number of collisions also increased this past year.  In the first 9 months of 2010, there were 76 accidents in Illinois involving a train and an automobile.  Thus, the ICC calculates that once all accidents are accounted for, there will have been between 125 and 130 such accidents in Illinois in 2010.  In 2009, by contrast, there were only 80 such collisions in the state over the course of the entire year.  The total number of collisions between vehicles and trains had also declined in each of the previous two years.

Federal officials (through the Federal Railroad Administration) have begun an all-out media blitz in an attempt to combat this growing problem.  In particular, they have released a series of videos, much like those targeted at texting while driving, designed to force people to contend with the consequences of dangerous behavior.  For example, the video “Where’s the Best Man?” shows a driver attempting to beat a train across the tracks, resulting in the deaths of several members of a wedding party.

The FRA states that the new videos are designed to “shock” people into being more careful at railroad crossings.  He also urged people to think about the consequences of train accidents to conductors and train operators who have no way to avoid an accident.  As Joseph Szabo, administrator of the FRA, said in a news conference, “The trauma (from being involved in accidents) that is carried by train crews … leaves an indelible mark on their psyches and their souls.”Safety advocates support the efforts of the FRA to educate the public about railroad crossing safety.  Certainly, attempts to “beat the train” are responsible for many unnecessary deaths.  But we cannot help but note that attributing the high accident and fatality rates simply to irresponsible behavior by drivers and pedestrians is a gross oversimplification.  We have written several times in the past year alone about accidents and fatalities caused by railroad negligence.  For example, Katie Lunn, a 26-year-old dance instructor, was killed in University Park this past year when crossing signals were “inadvertently” deactivated for repairs, then left off.

Drivers and pedestrians absolutely must respect trains and train signals, and any public education designed to encourage the public to follow these important safety rules is welcome.  But we cannot pretend that the railroads and their operators are simply a passive force in this year’s increase in accidents and fatalities.  Until the FRA is willing to take an honest look at both sides of the problem, we may make progress but will never truly eliminate these senseless injuries and deaths.