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Ventura Co. crackdown on rail safety scofflaws

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  • 3/31 Los Angeles Times
    Published Wednesday, March 31, 2004, in the Los Angeles Times Campaign Goes After Rail Safety Violators The CHP is cracking down on motorists and pedestrians
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2004
      Published Wednesday, March 31, 2004, in the Los Angeles Times

      Campaign Goes After Rail Safety Violators

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

      By 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, <http://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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