Reducing trespassing on railroad tracks

Experts from several areas are working to limit the number of people on railroad tracks:

Trespassing numbers have remained fairly steady over the years and now account for about 72 percent of all railroad-related deaths, with 761 fatalities in 2015, including 296 suicides.

Safety experts are now focused on finding ways to cut trespassing through education, intervention and barriers such as fencing at popular trespassing spots. But advocates concede it won’t be easy — there are 140,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and it is impossible to contain it all.

“Trespassing has been more of a stubborn problem for us,” said Bonnie Murphy, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a national train safety organization, who spoke along with other safety experts at the biennial DuPage Railroad Safety Council conference last week. “There’s a disturbing, ongoing trend of people walking along the tracks.”

This is an important safety issue. But, it raises a larger question: while the lines are technically private property, how do you realistically keep people off of them when they crisscross all parts of America at ground level? Railroads rejected the idea long ago that fences should be built along the thousands of miles of lines. There is no mention in this article of enforcing trespassing but I assume this would require a significant amount of resources. Cameras at important locations? Warning signs at regular intervals along the lines? Trains using a more effective warning signal of their arrival (think of a targeted rumbling option from a longer distance)? More effort at moving rail traffic away from major population centers (such as going around major metropolitan regions when possible)?

Railroads can be incredible at moving freight and people long distances. However, they don’t interact well with pedestrians.

Your friends have more friends that you

A sociologist discovered a law about how many friends your friends have:

Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true…

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing Maine. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

See the abstract of the 1991 article here.

It is interesting that this newspaper piece focuses on the dangerous aspects of this. Danger and death are needed to catch the attention of readers who might not otherwise care about sociological findings? What about normal life when it seems your friends are more popular than you? Rest assured; that is just the way the math works out.

The furor over traffic fatalities – in the early 1900s

With talk about the first Google self-driving car crash, one writer reminds us of earlier discussions about cars and accidents:

There’s some precedent for all this, of course. It’s not as though the car as we know it today was thwarted by human deaths. The first recorded traffic fatality in the United States occurred in 1899, in New York City, when a man stepping off a trolley was struck by a taxi.

The three decades that followed were chaotic and deadly. Scholars and justices debated whether the automobile was, perhaps, inherently evil. By the 1920s, cars were causing so many deaths that people in cities like New York and Detroit began throwing parades in an attempt to underscore the need for traffic safety. Tow trucks would haul smashed, totaled vehicles along the course of the parade. From The Detroit News:

“Some wrecks featured mannequin drivers dressed as Satan and bloody corpses as passengers. Children crippled from accidents rode in the back of open cars waving to other children watching from sidewalks. Washington, D.C., and New York City held parades including 10,000 children dressed as ghosts, representing each a death that year. They were followed by grieving young mothers who wore white or gold stars to indicate they’d lost a child.”

Eventually, traffic laws and other safety features—stop lights, brightly painted lanes, speed limits—were standardized. And car-safety technology improved, too. Vehicles got shatterproof windshields, turn signals, parking brakes, and eventually seat belts and airbags. In 1970, about 60,000 people died each year on American roads. By 2013, the number of annual traffic fatalities had been cut almost in half.

I am usually amazed when I look back at historical and sociological work about the major changes in society due to and in response to the car. Even with all the safety implications – tens of thousands of deaths each year – Americans went all in for the car, changing our streets, residential patterns, leisure activities, homes, and numerous other areas.

There are also some similarities with the advent of railroad technology in the mid-1800s where it took some time to develop reliable safety devices. In Forging Industrial Policy, sociologist Frank Dobbin describes the multitude of safety issues in Britain where railroads were allowed a lot of latitude until too many people were dying.

Fatalities due to vehicle-train collisions down dramatically

As the Chicago Tribune recently remembered a train-school bus collision that killed 7 in 1995, I looked at the statistics on vehicle-train crash fatalities. The numbers have dropped quite a bit in recent decades:

All Highway-Rail Incidents at Public and Private Crossings, 1981-2014
Source: Federal Railroad Administration
Year Collisions Fatalities Injuries
1981 9,461 728 3,293
1982 7,932 607 2,637
1983 7,305 575 2,623
1984 7,456 649 2,910
1985 7,073 582 2,687
1986 6,513 616 2,458
1987 6,426 624 2,429
1988 6,617 689 2,589
1989 6,526 801 2,868
1990 5,715 698 2,407
1991 5,388 608 2,094
1992 4,910 579 1,975
1993 4,892 626 1,837
1994 4,979 615 1,961
1995 4,633 579 1,894
1996 4,257 488 1,610
1997 3,865 461 1,540
1998 3,508 431 1,303
1999 3,489 402 1,396
2000 3,502 425 1,219
2001 3,237 421 1,157
2002 3,077 357 999
2003 2,977 334 1,035
2004 3,077 372 1,092
2005 3,057 359 1,051
2006 2,936 369 1,070
2007 2,776 339 1,062
2008 2,429 290 992
2009 1,934 249 743
2010 2,051 260 887
2011 2,061 250 1,045
2012 1,985 230 975
2013* 2,098 232 972
2014* 2,287 269 849

* Preliminary statistics

Based on the number of articles I’ve read plus personal experience driving at-grade crossings in the Chicago area (which has many cars driving over railroads tracks each day – in 2014, Illinois had the second most train-vehicle collisions in the country), there are several factors behind this decrease:

  1. Improved signage at many at-grade crossings.
  2. More barriers at crossings that make it difficult to go around gates (longer gate arms) or cross into other lanes (barriers in the middle of the road).
  3. Eliminating at-grade crossings with more underpasses and bridges. These can be expensive but they reduce crashes as well as save time for drivers who don’t have to wait for trains to pass.

Yet, these changes can’t control the actions of drivers as the Chicago Tribune article noted:

But experts say safety is a matter of attitude and awareness, not just signals and signs. That’s the message of groups like Operation Lifesaver and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, an organization founded by Dr. Lanny Wilson after the death of his daughter at a rail crossing in 1994.

A 2013 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that as many as 4 in 10 Chicago-area pedestrians and bicyclists said they were at times willing to ignore flashing lights, ringing bells and gates at railroad crossings…

Barkan pointed to the Feb. 3 incident in Valhalla, N.Y., when a Metro-North Railroad commuter train struck an SUV at a grade crossing, killing six…

That crash could have been avoided, he said, if the driver had observed the “cardinal rule” of grade crossing safety: “Motorists must never enter a grade crossing until they have a clear exit path that equals or exceeds the length of their vehicle available on the other side of the tracks.”

Reaching zero traffic deaths on the roads also involves continuous improvement at such crossings.

Study suggests thousands more road deaths when gas prices drop $2 a gallon

American drivers certainly like cheaper gas prices but it may come at the price of more deaths:

South Dakota State University sociology professor Guangqing Chi, who analyzes the relationship between gas prices and road fatalities, calculated what the current prices might mean for fatalities by analyzing traffic and crash data numbers from a Minnesota study he conducted from 1998 to 2007.

“A $2 drop in gasoline price can translate into about 9,000 road fatalities a year in the U.S,” Chi said on NPR’s Morning Edition Tuesday. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam said his “jaw dropped” when he heard the “scary” number. A more conservative calculation based on Chi’s research translates into 3,000 more road deaths per year, Vedantam said…

Chi’s original Minnesota study — from which he extrapolated the 9,000 road deaths figure — showed that even a 20-cent drop in gas prices was linked to 15 additional road deaths in the state per year.

Chi told The Huffington Post by phone Tuesday that it typically takes almost a year for drivers to adopt new driving habits in response to changes in gas prices. Some analysts have predicted low gas prices will persist for the next six months or so.

Those driverless cars (with solar power and electric cars) can’t get here soon enough. Yet, Chi acknowledges that Americans have already been driving less so it will take some time to see if driving picks up just because gas prices dropped significantly.

Does posting the number of highway deaths in Illinois lead to safer driving?

A columnist discusses the effects of signs on Illinois Tollways that post the number of automobile fatalities on area highways:

The first time I saw one of those grim Illinois expressway signs was in 2012. I was merrily driving to the family farm in Indiana to visit my mom when I spotted a roadside sign dishing a little shock and awe to commuters and vacationers. There was something cold about the little electric bulbs in the sign above my expressway lane letting me know: “679 TRAFFIC DEATHS THIS YEAR.”

It made me think…

That’s precisely what the sign was meant to do. While many states were seeing fewer traffic fatalities during the summer of 2012, Illinois was seeing a substantial increase in the number of people killed on Illinois roads in the first half of that year. After the Illinois Department of Transportation started posting a running total of the dead in July, the last half of 2012 saw fewer fatalities than the last half of sign-free 2011.

Still, the number of fatalities went up in 2012, from 918 to 957. Last year, with those same signs updating our death toll daily and urging us to drive more safely, our fatalities inched higher again, to 973.

This evidence suggests the signs had little effect. This would line up with research that suggests drivers don’t pay all that much attention to road signs; hence, the suggestion that perhaps no signs might even be better. Indeed, the Illinois Department of Transportation has moved on to other strategies to reduce traffic deaths:

Michael Rooker, the actor who played Merle Dixon on TV’s “The Walking Dead,” stars in the latest IDOT safety campaign, a series of videos at thedrivingdeadseries.com and Facebook posts titled “The Driving Dead.” The postings don’t have anything close to the power of watching a young mother of two die while pinned in her car, but perhaps they will prove more effective than the road signs. The catchphrase of “The Driving Dead” gives those behind the wheel a new way of thinking about driving.

I would be curious to know whether IDOT is pursuing these strategies based on evidence that suggest they work or the agency is mounting what they think might work and/or what is publicly visible. Driving is a dangerous activity – one of the most dangerous the average person will partake in each day – and you would want solutions that work rather than guesses.

When public anger can prompt the collection of better data

I’ve seen this argument several places, including this AP story: collecting national data about fatalities due to police would be helpful.

To many Americans, it feels like a national tidal wave. And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.

“We have a huge scandal in that we don’t have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody,” says Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a leading scholar on policing and civil liberties. “That’s outrageous.”…

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for instance, track justifiable police homicides – there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013 – but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren’t required.

The Wall Street Journal, detailing its own examination of officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation’s 110 largest police departments, reported last week that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters…

Chettiar is hopeful that recent events will create the “political and public will” to begin gathering and analyzing the facts.

A few quick thoughts:

1. Just because this data hasn’t been collected doesn’t necessarily mean this was intentional. Government agencies collect lots of data but it takes some deliberate action and foresight regarding what should and shouldn’t be reported. Given that there are a least a few hundred such deaths each year, you would think someone would have flagged such information as interesting but apparently not. Now would be a good time to start reporting and collecting such data.

2. Statistics would be helpful in providing a broader perspective on the issue but, as the article notes, statistics have certain kinds of persuasive power as do individual events or broad narratives not necessarily backed by statistics. In our individualistic culture, specific stories can often go a long ways. At the same time, social problems are often defined by their scope which involves statistical measures of how many people are affected.