Cops step up vigilance after fatal Metra crashes





This man and woman crossing the tracks in Downers Grove were given a warning by police. (David Pierini/Tribune Photo)

It wasn't a good day for Caine Hlavaty, who was ticketed for trying to beat the crossing gates -- and an oncoming train -- while riding his bike across the tracks in Elmhurst. Now he was complaining he had missed his bus for work.

That was of little concern to police Cmdr. Jim Kveton and five other officers on an early morning safety patrol last week at the Metra station. They were cutting violators little slack.

Kveton believes strict enforcement is one reason why the suburb has had only one crossing fatality since 1994.

"The word is, nobody gets a pass in Elmhurst," he said.

Vigilance at rail crossings in suburbs such as Elmhurst, Lombard and Des Plaines has been ramped up in the wake of last month's double-fatal crash in North Chicago. Anyone skirting lowered gates or ignoring signals is apt to get a ticket, carrying a $250 fine.

Despite flashing warning lights, bells and the train's blaring horn on the foggy morning of March 13, Blanca Villanueva-Sanchez, 34, and her 18-month-old goddaughter were run down. Carrying the child, Villanueva-Sanchez was trying to beat a 70-mph Metra train across the station tracks.

The tragedy -- caught on video by the locomotive's camera and widely viewed -- happens all too often in Illinois, where 16 non-suicide deaths were reported last year. On a typical day, police and Metra say, late-running commuters dash across tracks as trains bear down. Teenagers play "chicken" on the tracks and taunt engineers. Motorists disregard warnings and go around gates.

Such incidents raise the question: Why do people take chances at train crossings when one false move, one slip or one miscalculation can prove deadly?

Police, safety experts, veteran railroaders and psychologists say hastiness on the part of stressed-out commuters is the main reason. People also don't pay attention to warnings, or simply follow the crowd. Others, who ordinarily would not take risks, act impulsively.

"You see people who are running late," Elmhurst Officer Nick Waldenmeyer said. "They don't even want to take the tunnel (under the tracks). They figure they'll sneak right over."

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, who studies risk-taking behavior, believes people's personalities fall somewhere between those who are completely risk-averse and those he calls "Type T" personalities, or thrill-seekers.

"Intelligence doesn't seem to be one of the factors," Farley said. "We say, 'God, that's stupid.' But you still get intelligent people doing it."

Stress and pressure can play a role, said Dr. Emil Coccaro, professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. Some people act impulsively with little provocation, he said.

"You don't want to cross train tracks. ... The vast majority of people know you don't do that," Coccaro said. "(Villanueva-Sanchez) may have felt pressure to do that."

As the Metra video clearly documented, Villanueva-Sanchez, carrying the infant, was trying to catch up with her husband, daughter and son, who had crossed just ahead of her at the North Chicago station.

Dr. Lanny Wilson, one of the Chicago area's most ardent rail-safety advocates, said people often ignore warnings and cross tracks without thinking about the danger.

"The problem was that first person who went across and disobeyed the warning devices," said Wilson, head of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council.

"The person who got struck was the sad victim of that first decision," said Wilson, who became an activist after losing his own daughter in a rail-crossing crash.

Doug Davidson, a longtime engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad and Metra, believes such go-along behavior is often to blame for collisions.

Now an official with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Davidson has been in the cab when four fatalities occurred. He remembers each vividly.

"There are times when people do things and are unaware of the train, and other times they make a willful decision to try to beat the train," Davidson said.

Illinois Commerce Commission data show 2009 was a record year for safety at public highway-rail crossings in Illinois with 80 collisions involving trains, vehicles and pedestrians. Non-suicide deaths fell to 16 from 25 in 2008, when there were 129 collisions.

With Commerce Commission funding, the rail-safety organization Operation Lifesaver teams with police departments to educate people about safety awareness.

"People don't think something bad is doing to happen to them," said Chip Pew, head of Operation Lifesaver. "The sad thing is, trains don't give do-overs. There's no second chance."

On the platform recently at the Belmont Road Metra station in Downers Grove, Pew and police handed out reminders to commuters about crossing safety, along with warning notices to those who weren't careful.

Next time, however, violators won't be so lucky. They may get tickets and face hefty fines.

That was the case last week in Elmhurst where Hlavaty, 36, was stopped, despite his vigorous protests that he'd done nothing wrong.

With no driver's license, he complained, "What's a person like me do?"

Even stepping onto tracks before the lights stop flashing and the gates are completely raised may result in a ticket.

DuPage County judges are allowing some first-time violators to plead guilty, pay court costs and perform community service in lieu of the $250 fine.

Chris Fox, of Lombard, took such a deal. Fox, 40, made the mistake of crossing the tracks in Lombard before the warning lights had stopped. A police officer was waiting for him.

"I definitely pay attention now when I walk across the tracks," Fox said. "I make sure there's no flashing lights."

That's the goal, said attorney William Belmonte, who prosecutes Elmhurst's cases in court.

"The cops are the guys who have to pick up the body parts," Belmonte said. "That's what they are focused on preventing."