By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service
LANSING — The number of pedestrian deaths involving railroads is rising.
Trains killed or injured 19 trespassers in Michigan last year, though the number of vehicle-train accidents fell.
Deaths on segments of a railway other than a designated crossing–known as “trespassing”–accounted for 63 percent of rail-related fatalities in the United States between 2005 and 2016, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. More than twice as many deaths came from trespassing than from incidents at crossings.
Neither the cumulative death toll nor individual incidents from trespassing draw the level of public attention that other train-related deaths do, such as the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak train that killed three and injured dozens south of Tacoma, Washington.
Or a 2009 accident when an Amtrak train hit a car and killed its five passengers in Canton Township. Or a March 2017 crash in Breedsville, Van Buren County, that killed the driver and injured her son when the car didn’t yield to an oncoming freight train.
Sam Crowl, the state coordinator for Michigan Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the entirety of a railroad is private property, and no railroad will allow pedestrians because of the safety risks involved.
“The reason we call them trespassers is because they’re not allowed on railroad property,” Crowl said. “They may be a pedestrian at the designated crossing, but when they walk off, they’re trespassing.”
Of the 19 trespassers hit by trains in Michigan in 2017, 13 died, Crowl said. Some survivors lost arms and legs.
Those numbers exclude incidents considered suicides — there were five last year, he said.
Patterns emerged among the dead.
“Eight of the 13 had earbuds on,” Crowl said.
The earbud-wearers had their backs to the trains when they were hit, Crowl said, and he attributed the rising number of incidents to technology that impedes hearing and pedestrians simply not paying attention.
“You can see that they did not intend to get hit by their walk,” Crowl said, referring to cameras now fixed to most trains. “If they were standing still they might feel the vibration of the train coming.”
Operation Lifesaver, which operates a branch in every state, works to reduce the number of rail-related fatalities through presentations and safety education.
The Michigan Department of Transportation discourages anyone from walking on a railroad anywhere other than at a designated crossing, media representative Michael Frezell said.
He said taking photographs on railroad tracks is relatively popular, but unsafe.
“We strongly discourage anyone from taking pictures, or walking along railroad tracks, or playing along the tracks,” Frezell said. “We don’t want to see any fatality.”
Frezell said he would like to see an initiative similar to Toward Zero Deaths — a national strategy to eliminate traffic deaths adopted by MDOT and the Michigan State Police — regarding railroad accidents.
In 1970, there were 40 rail-related deaths in Michigan involving vehicles. In last few years, Michigan has averaged nine to 10 a year, Crowl said.
“We believe that what we do has helped to reduce that number downward,” Crowl said.
Collisions involving trains and vehicles have decreased 83 percent from 1972 to 2016, a reduction of roughly 10,000 incidents per year, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics cited by Operation Lifesaver. But the number of trespassing deaths has grown, Crowl said.
“All of the incidents can be avoided simply by following the rules that already exist. However, we know people are in a hurry and don’t always follow the rules that exist,” Crowl said.
MI Operation Lifesaver’s advocacy involves going into as many schools and driver training classes as it can to share information. The group conducts free presentations.
Victims typically involved in trespassing-related incidents are between 18 and 38, and that age group is difficult to speak to in a traditional setting, Crowl said. The group is using social media to publicize hazards, in addition to billboards and radio ads.