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Potential for trains v. people or cars a serious threat
train crash
An 80-year-old Turlock woman died in this August train crash when her car was hit in downtown Turlock. Similar deaths have occurred in Hughson, Riverbank, Denair and Empire in recent years. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier file photo

Since 1981, railroad crossing incidents have declined significantly. In 1981, there were more than 9,000 collisions in the United States and in 2012, there were fewer than 2,000. Considering that the vast majority of communities in this country have no major railroads in or near them, last year's statistics shows us that the dangers are high. And in areas like the one we live in, the potential for collisions between trains and people and trains and motor vehicles is a serious threat. In this county alone we have multiple rail lines with as many different train companies using them. We have commuter trains, regular passenger trains and freight trains traveling through our cities around the clock, and often at high speeds.

I have always been interested in trains, if not for just what a magnificent invention they are, but also the interesting history of the rail lines and role they played in the industrialization of our country. In effect, it was the rail lines that settled the west, having built the many towns that now span the length of the United States from east to west.

There is something romantic about trains, but what is beautiful can also kill you. So it goes for the encounters between motorists and trains that occur all too often. In the early 1980s, there was an excess of 3,000 motor vehicle versus train crashes and it goes without saying who lost out on those encounters. One collision with a train can kill entire families and even busloads of people. It makes sense to give trains our complete attention and respect when encountering them. A train traveling at 70 mph can take a half mile or more to come to a complete stop.

Railroad crossing intersections exist in many forms. In more rural areas, the crossing can consist of just a couple of flashing red lights and bells to warn of passing trains. In other locations, the crossings usually have the lights, bells and control arms that are supposed to keep motorists and pedestrians from crossing. According to one report I read, "trains kill or seriously injure approximately 2,400 a year, a number which has not significantly changed over the last 15 years. Accidents may occur either because the driver races the train through the crossing or because the driver simply fails to see the train coming."

My research also found some interesting facts determined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
Three out of four crashes occur within 25 miles of a motorist's home.

Fifty percent of all crashes occur within five miles of home.

A motorist is almost 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in a collision involving another motor vehicle.

People reading this column likely live here in Modesto region, so the threat of injuries or death related to trains is a greater consideration than in other areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, for example. Adding to the fact that we encounter more trains than many other communities is that some of them take a long time to pass, which tends to cause people in a hurry to race the train through the crossing before it gets there. It is an extremely high risk movement for the obvious reasons, and sometimes the train that a person is trying to beat might not be the real threat; there could also be a train coming from the opposite direction which is unseen.

I believe that when a motorist or pedestrian is injured or killed by a train, it was most likely an avoidable accident. In this area, it is best to wait the train out; relax while you let it pass. Do not try to go around the gates because you think you can do so safely and race the train through the crossing. The inconvenience of a few minute wait to allow a train to pass is much better than having to be extricated from a balled-up mess of twisted metal with the likelihood of coming out dead or severely maimed.