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Public Service Shock Spots Hope to Ward Off Fatal Trespassing


A seemingly simple public service message--Stay off the tracks!--is being driven home in dramatic form by a new series of public service messages.

The television and print ads that are part of "Highways or Dieways" are graphic simulation, in grainy footage, of rail tragedies: a mother whose car stalls on the tracks who can't get her child out; a group of teenagers playing chicken and failing to beat a train across the tracks; a child on a trestle whose foot gets caught between the ties as a train approaches.

In using what are sometimes called "shock spots," the U.S. Department of Transportation is aiming for behavior modification. Someone gets hit by a train every 90 minutes in the United States. Sometimes the victims are in a car or truck, sometimes on foot. What never changes is this: They are always on the railroad track. It's fatal trespassing.

Last year 486 people died at railroad crossings and 493 more died while walking on tracks or playing on trestles, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman David Bolger. And while these numbers are small compared to highway fatalities, there's a different aspect to train-related deaths because almost all are preventable.

In fact, half the fatalities occur at marked crossings where alerting lights, bells or safety gates are working properly and drivers try to beat the train.

"They're late for work; they are late for school; they have a doctor's appointment; they can't wait," said Bolger. "They think they can make it--there seems to be a sort of Doppler effect that can make the train appear farther away than it really is."

The new TV spots are co-sponsored by the Department of Transportation, the Assn. of American Railroads and Operation Lifesaver, the national volunteer safety group that works year-round on railroad safety issues.

In 1996, California led the nation in trespass fatalities (69) and trespass injuries (45), and was fifth in railroad crossing deaths (21) and injuries (50).

Operation Lifesaver attributes the statistics both to the demographics of a growing state with many newcomers who aren't familiar with railroad safety and a record number of freight and passenger trains now operating, including a new mix of commuter, light rail for moving people and short-line trains bringing freight to major carriers.

Eric Jacobsen, California state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, said people don't realize that trains can't stop quickly--it can take up to a mile and a half. Also, people don't consider a railroad track to be private property. "They know they don't belong on a freeway or an airport runway, but think it's OK to walk down the railroad track or even jog, wearing headsets."

The rail industry is bolstering its safety push with upgraded warning devices, improved crossings, video surveillance to catch drivers going around crossing gates and tougher fines for people caught trespassing.

"Highways or Dieways" is the second phase of the Department of Transportation's public safety campaign, which began in 1995 with a series entitled "Always Expect a Train." That series, which is still running, is more subtle in its spots, which include one focusing on train engineers as the "silent victims" in accidents.

The new tougher campaign is aimed at the MTV generation's "I'm invincible" mentality," Bolger said.

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