James Hart | ‘Beat the train’ is a dangerous game that many still play

Let’s start with the good news: Fewer U.S. motorists are being killed in crashes at railroad crossings compared to 30 years ago. In fact, the number of deaths has been on the decline for years.

There are still plenty of drivers, though, who ignore the warning signals and try to beat the train. Some of those folks live in Independence.

Last week, Union Pacific dispatched one of its trains to travel through Independence while police watched four train crossings to see how many people would try to cross the tracks when they shouldn’t.

In the space of two hours, from 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Thursday, officers busted 38 people for railroad-crossing violations, Independence police Sgt. John Passiglia said. Heck, they gave only warnings at two of the intersections because those crossings had warning signs but lacked bells and flashing lights.

Give local drivers points for consistency, at least. Independence conducted a similar campaign last spring, and under almost exactly the same conditions, officers caught 37 people for crossing violations.

Mark Wasko, a senior special agent for Union Pacific police, isn’t sure why people take the risk. Most collisions tend to occur near the drivers’ homes, so maybe they get complacent, he said.

“Waiting a couple of minutes is a lot better than becoming a statistic in a train collision,” said Wasko, whose division has conducted nearly two dozen operations this year like the one last week in Independence. The railroad targets crossings where there have been collisions or where crews have reported a lot of near misses.

I don’t want to overstate the problem. You can’t really call this an epidemic.

About 260 people died in car-train collisions last year, according to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit that tries to prevent these kinds of crashes. Missouri accounted for 12 of those deaths, Kansas for seven, enough to put them in the top 15 states for these kinds of fatalities.

That’s only a fraction of overall traffic deaths, however. Not quite 33,000 people died on U.S. roads last year, and that was a record low, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

Of all the ways someone can die behind the wheel of a car, though, getting hit by a train just seems so preventable.

According to Wasko, drivers involved in a train collision are 20 times more likely to die than motorists involved in other kinds of wrecks.

“All it takes is one for it to be devastating,” Passiglia said.