Deaths resulting from collisions between trains and automobiles at public railroad crossings in Ohio rose last year to the highest level since 2008, according to recently released data from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
No one was killed in the 10 train-vehicle crashes in the region in 2012, but a few people were seriously injured, and it was the most local crashes in six years. Butler County had four crashes; only two other counties had more.
PUCO said it has ordered safety upgrades at more than 1,700 crossings statewide in the last 12 years, including 500 in 2012.
But more than eight in 10 train-vehicle collisions in the state occur at crossings with active warning devices.
Warning devices do not improve safety if drivers fail to notice or ignore signs of danger, authorities said.
“People will drive around a lowered gate,” said Joyce Rose, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a Virginia-based group dedicated to ending collisions at highway-rail grade crossings. “People will do really crazy, dumb things sometimes.”
Ohio has 36 freight railroads that operate about 5,300 miles of track, and the state is home to 5,800 public grade crossings, according to PUCO.
There are 481 public crossings in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, PUCO said.
Many drivers in southern Ohio must travel over railroad tracks multiple times each day as part of their ordinary commutes. On very rare occasions, the trips end in tragedy.
In 2012, there were 71 crashes involving trains and automobiles at public crossings, including 10 in Butler, Clark, Miami and Montgomery counties. Champaign, Greene and Warren counties had no crashes last year.
It was the most crashes at public crossings in Ohio since 2008 (82), and it was the most local crashes since 2006 (11).
Nine people in Ohio were killed in train-vehicle crashes last year, and 25 people were injured, including four people in Montgomery County and one in Clark County.
Experts said the number of incidents is so small that there is significant volatility from year to year. The data do not include people who commit suicide by train or pedestrians who are killed walking on the tracks. About 26 people who do not work for rail companies died on Ohio tracks last year.
A survivor’s tale
On Jan. 23, 2012, 62-year-old Ronald Morris was driving east on Kercher Street in Miamisburg in a white Ford Ranger pickup truck, according to a crash report.
Warning lights began flashing at the railroad crossing, and train whistles could be heard blocks away, a witness said.
But Morris drove onto the west track and stopped.
Seconds before the train reached the crossing, Morris appeared frenzied and possibly tried putting his truck in reverse, witnesses said
“I don’t know if he was trying to get his seat belt off or get the truck in gear or something, but for that second or two, he was frantic,” said Connie Riley, 48, who was parked at crossing.
A Norfolk Southern train that was traveling at 34 mph smashed into the passenger side door of the truck, throwing the vehicle sideways and dragging it about 50 yards, the report said.
The truck was destroyed. Morris was found unresponsive but still breathing.
Morris suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs, lost his ability to walk, had a trache in his throat and struggled to talk,, said his sister, Deborah Stachler.
Morris died on Saturday morning, his sister said. He had been living in a nursing home.
“He always had a big heart, and he did anything for anybody,” she said. “He will be missed, but he’ll always be in my thoughts.”
His mother, Dorcas Morris, said her son seemed to have no memory of the incident, and it was unclear what occurred.
“So many things could have happened, and I don’t know if we’ll ever know what really happened,” she said.
Train-vehicle collisions have plummeted in the last several decades nationwide, and officials attribute the declines to aggressive public education campaigns and safety upgrades at rail crossings.
“Over the 40-year history that Operation Lifesaver has been in existence, rail-highway collisions have decreased by 83 percent,” said Rose, with the nonprofit. “They’ve gone from over 12,000 in 1972 to less than 1,960 nationwide in 2012.”
Installing warning devices, including flashing lights and roadway gates, is one of the best ways to improve safety at crossings, PUCO said.
“Federal statistics will tell you that there is about a 90 percent increase in visibility by adding adding devices,” said Jill Henry, rail specialist with PUCO.
But last year, 83 percent of train-vehicle crashes in Ohio were at crossings with active warning devices, up from 40 percent of crashes in 2003.
About 70 percent of crossings in the seven-county region have active warning devices, and there are now roadway gates at nine of the 10 crossings where the local crashes occurred last year.
More than half of fatal crashes in Ohio occur at crossings with active devices.
A gate was installed in May 2012 at the Kercher Street crossing as part of a larger corridor project. The crossing only had flashing safety lights before then.
Stachler said she wishes all public crossings featured gates, because it makes them much safer. But she realizes many train-vehicle crashes are caused by drivers deliberately ignoring the warning devices and trying to beat oncoming trains.
“I’ve seen people do it,” Stachler said. “They’re crazy — I guess they don’t value their life.”
It also can be expensive to upgrade crossings: Standard light and gate installations run about $185,000.
Some crashes are caused by distracted driving, and motorists fail to obey warning signs because they are preoccupied with their cell phones, iPods and other devices.
Some crashes are partly caused by car troubles.
Safety experts said a little patience, awareness and caution is all that is required to avoid a train-related disaster.
“If you see tracks, you should think train,” Rose said.
TRAIN-VEHICLE CRASHES IN OHIO In 2012, there was an increase in train-vehicle crashes across the region and statewide. 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 Butler 4 3 4 3 2 Champaign 0 0 2 1 0 Clark 2 1 0 0 2 Greene 0 0 0 0 0 Miami 1 1 0 1 0 Montgomery 3 2 0 0 1 Warren 0 0 1 0 2 Ohio 71 63 64 55 82
FATAL TRAIN-VEHICLE CRASHES Number of fatal crashes and whether crossing had active warning devices Fatal train-vehicle crashes in Ohio % of fatal crashes at crossings with active warning devices 2012 8 63% 2011 4 75% 2010 4 25% Source: Public Utilities Commission of Ohio