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Campaign Goes After Rail Safety Violators

The CHP is cracking down on motorists and pedestrians in Ventura County who behave recklessly near the tracks.

March 31, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to promote rail safety, California Highway Patrol officers joined rail operators Tuesday in a crackdown on motorists and pedestrians in Ventura County who ignore rail-related traffic laws.

Using half a dozen patrol cars at several at-grade crossings between Oxnard and Moorpark, officers wrote a dozen citations, gave five verbal warnings and reported an additional 25 traffic violations.

The Officer-on-a-Train program, which continues today in Santa Barbara and Thursday in Moorpark, was sponsored by rail operators and Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit national organization founded to promote rail safety and reduce accidents.

"This is our first time participating in this program," said CHP Sgt. Mike Cooper. "The goal is not to just write citations, but to educate."

From 1998 to 2003, three motorists or their passengers died in a total of 20 crashes involving trains and vehicles in Ventura County, according to CHP Officer Steve Reid. Another eight people were injured in those incidents, which do not include train accidents involving pedestrians.

The latest accident occurred Monday evening when a female motorist driving through a crossing was struck by a Metrolink commuter train at Sycamore Drive in Simi Valley.

So far this year, at least three Ventura County pedestrians have died in train accidents: A 49-year-old Oxnard farm worker was killed Feb. 11 while crossing the tracks at 5th Street; a 43-year-old Simi Valley man was killed Feb. 17 at a Los Angeles Avenue crossing after he was struck by shopping carts being dragged by a freight train; and a 15-year-old Ventura High School student was killed March 13 when she stepped in front of a train at Seaward Avenue.

Officials said their intent was to alert pedestrians and motorists to the dangers of rail crossings and to make them act with more caution.

"Please understand that to be anywhere on or near the tracks is illegal. It's dangerous and it's illegal," Metrolink spokeswoman Sharon Gavin said before a morning news conference to introduce the program. "You can pay with a fine, or you can pay with your life."

During Tuesday's exercise, a Dallas truck driver was given a $275 citation after failing to allow enough time for her 18-wheeler to get through the crossing at Rice Avenue in Oxnard. The arms of the intersection's crossing gates bumped the rear of her trailer and two patrol cars pulled the rig over within minutes.

Authorities said they wanted to encourage safety throughout the region. In neighboring Santa Barbara County, there have been five pedestrian-train deaths in recent months, according to Eric Jacobsen, president of California Operation Lifesaver, who is attending this week's events.

Operation Lifesaver officials believe that federal statistics show their method is working. The number of crossing accidents nationwide has dropped by nearly 75% since the organization was formed in Idaho 32 years ago. In 1972 there were approximately 12,000 collisions between trains and motor vehicles; the figure dropped to 3,072 in 2002.

In 2002, the most recent year for which national figures are available, California led the nation in train-pedestrian fatalities, with 90 people killed. The state came in second, after Texas, in train-vehicle fatalities, with 30.

Operation Lifesaver provides safety tips for motorists and pedestrians on its website, www.operationlifesaver.com.

In Moorpark, Mayor Patrick Hunter sees this week's Officer-on-a-Train event as part of a larger rail-safety education campaign for his city. Moorpark was the scene of four train collisions last year -- one fatal -- after two years of no such accidents.

"The mission is simple: the total elimination of train incidents in the city of Moorpark," Hunter said.

The mayor and senior city staffers met with Metrolink officials last month to discuss ways to raise awareness and reduce accidents. The mayor wants the city's law enforcement officials to get the safety message out to students.

Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Richard Diaz, who serves as Moorpark's police chief, said more attention was being paid to rail-related violations. He said a dozen citations have been issued since Jan. 1.

Metrolink has agreed to study whether its trains, which travel up to 70 mph through some sections of Moorpark, should slow down, Hunter said.

Jacobsen, who with his wife Bonnie coordinates Operation Lifesaver programs throughout the state, said he wasn't sure lower speed would reduce accidents. Surprisingly, statistics suggest just the opposite, he said: Higher train speeds seem to result in fewer collisions with vehicles, perhaps because commuters aren't held up as long at crossings.

Nevertheless, Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said impatient motorists often think they can beat a train, putting themselves and others at risk. "People have a hard time calculating the speed of oncoming trains," he said.

Bromley said the "forgotten victims" in rail deaths, either accidental or those resulting from suicide, were the train's crew members, who must deal with the emotional trauma. Jacobsen, who retired as a captain for Southern Pacific's police division after 24 years, said nearly every veteran engineer has witnessed at least one fatality or major injury on the job.

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