Danger on the Tracks

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By Brittany Bivins

You pass by them every day-but how much attention do you really pay to railroad crossings? It turns out, crossing the tracks can be one of the most dangerous parts of your commute.

There are more than 140,000 miles of train tracks in the United States. And more than 200,000 crossings all across the country. Each one of them can pose a deadly threat if you're not careful.

That's because crossing railway gates after they come down isn't just illegal-it's downright dangerous.

Jasmine Rojas has seen firsthand the potential dangers. Her cousin, stepbrother and two friends died in 2007 after their car collided with a train in Chilton County. "It was very, very dramatic, because it's not only a few families affected. Everybody in the whole community got affected for that," said Rojas.

The four men left behind wives, children and entire families. Another man was seriously injured.

Officials say the only way to avoid tragedies like this one is to take extra precautions at every crossing, every time. However, not everyone obeys the cross gates or signs. Alabama News Network rode along to see how many people would try to beat the train, and we saw car after car, bicycle after pedestrian, all taking their chances against a 100-ton machine.

Nancy Hudson is Executive Director of Operation Lifesaver in Alabama, an organization that works to educate people about the dangers of train crossings. She say the reason most of us take chances on the track is simple. "A lot of times we're in a hurry, and we don't want to wait," said Hudson.

However, there are other potential dangers. "Part of it is because the train is so big and it's moving at you from an angle, it creates a little bit of an optical illusion. that makes it harder for us to tell how fast is the train moving and really, how close is it," said Hudson.

Now Alabama law enforcement agencies are cracking down on people who break the law to beat a train. Special Agent Bryan Scaffer is with the railroad police in Birmingham. On this day, he gave four tickets to people crossing the gates illegally, But he says what he's most worried about-the ones who get away.

"It's like the yellow light. you know, the first time you run a yellow light, you're scared, but after that, oh, I do it all the time, not a big deal. some day, your luck will run out," said Schaffer.

He says that can be deadly. "The impact/weight ratio is about 4000 to 1. that's the same impact ratio as a car run over a coke can, so it's devastating," he said.

For family members of accident victims, there's a lesson to learn. Jasmine Rojas says she wants to make sure what happened to her family and friends doesn't happen to anyone else. "Pay more attention when you're driving and check more than twice. more than twice, because you never know. Thirty seconds, that could be it for me. Thirty seconds."

Operation Lifesaver officials say they have made progress educating people about dangers of train crossings. They say fatal accidents have gone down by eighty-three percent since the organization was founded thirty years ago.

Police say crossing any train crossing without a gate is illegal when you can hear or see a train. Drivers must also stop if they see flashing red lights at a crossing. Crossing closed gates is always illegal and can lead to a ticket.

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