1:52 p.m. EDT June 29, 2013
Source: USA TODAY
It’s happening with increasing frequency around the nation: Someone distracted by their cellphone, iPod or other device walks in front of a moving train, according to transportation experts.
It’s happening on commuter and light rail tracks, at freight train crossings, and increasingly, on subway platforms
“What we are seeing in subway environments are people preoccupied, distracted with their electronic devices, coming too close and in some cases falling off subway platforms,” says Greg Hull, vice president for public safety, operations and technical services at the American Public Transportation Association.
In addition, he says, “people are putting themselves at risk as pedestrians when they cross at grade crossings, be it light rail or commuter rail.”
It’s difficult to document growth in the trend of distracted pedestrians struck by transit trains because no federal agency tracks such incidents, says Joyce Rose, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, an Alexandria, Va.-based, national non-profit railroad safety education group. “We don’t have a good handle on that data, and we don’t know how big the problem is,” she says.
There’s been plenty of research showing that pedestrians in general are more and more distracted by their electronic devices. Researchers at Ohio State University estimate that injuries related to using a cellphone while walking doubled from 2005 to 2010. In many cases – as with distracted driving – people do it even though they know it’s dangerous.
This month, insurer Liberty Mutual released a survey of more than 1,000 adults which found that 60%of pedestrians admit that they walk while texting, e-mailing, talking on the phone or listening to music – even though 70% of respondents consider those behaviors dangerous.
A 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University found that, from 2004-2010, a pedestrian in suburban Chicago was killed by a train every 10 days, on average. The study found that 54%of the deaths were accidental, 46% suicides.
Anecdotally, there’s adequate evidence that more people are distracted around trains:
- Last month, a man distracted by his cellphone while walking along the platform of the Pentagon City Metro station in Arlington, Va., fell onto the train tracks. A pair of Good Samaritans, Jennifer Buchanan, 44, and her father, Kent Wright, 72,pulled the man to safety seconds before a train roared into the station.
- Last July, Mitchell Maserang, 15, of Arnold, Mo., was struck and killed by a freight train as he walked and listened to music on his iPod in Wentzville, Mo.
- On May 30, 2012, Cameron Vennard, 14, of Kirkwood, Mo., was struck and killed by an Amtrak train in Kirkwood as he walked on the tracks listening to music with headphones.
In the USA, an effort is underway to better track distraction-related incidents on transit systems. The two-year federal transportation spending bill approved last year by Congress grants the Federal Transit Administration authority to directly oversee safety on rail transit systems.
“What’s new is that the FTA gets to set safety standards,” Rose says. “The reason that’s interesting is it gives us a chance to really get a better handle on these kinds of incidents. We’ll have better data and a focus on the safety issues.”
The Utah Transit Authority enacted an ordinance last year meant to ban distracted behavior by pedestrians around the tracks. It restricts behaviors such as texting, talking on the phone, listening to music with headphones or reading while crossing a track. It’s a civil rather than criminal violation with a $50 fine for a first offense and $100 for repeat offenses. First offenders are given the option to take a $25 rail safety course in lieu of the fine.
“We do enforce it, although not aggressively,” UTA spokesman Remi Barron says. “It’s more of a vehicle to have a conversation about safety.”
Operation Lifesaver is working with transit agencies around the nation on public education campaigns.
In Atlanta, Jennie Glasgow, Georgia state coordinator for the group, worked with the MARTA transit system to put distracted pedestrian messages in subway stations. “We knew that nationwide, it was becoming a problem,” she says. “More and more now, we’re seeing distracted pedestrians walking down the street.”
In Denver, Operation Lifesaver’s Colorado state coordinator, Tracy Rossbach, delivered the train safety message to a half-dozen schools within two or three blocks of a new light rail line from Union Station to Golden.
“I do know that education is the key to keeping people alive,” Rossbach says. “Education, education, education. We just have to keep after it. It took 20 years of education before we realized we should fasten our seat belts.”