Witness: Driver honked frantically, tried to get off railroad tracks before Iberia Parish train crash killed 5 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- Police tape remains near a railroad crossing on La. Hwy 88 and Hwy. 182 in Iberia Parish where a car was struck by an Amtrak train Dec. 22, 2015, killing five of the six people inside the car, Monday, December 28, 2015. Also pictured are memorial crosses from previous fatal crashes at that intersection--the nearest remembering a man killed after his car was hit by a train at that crossing in 2002.

A spike in fatal car crashes involving trains has officials with the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission re-emphasizing the need for drivers to make smarter decisions at railroad crossings. Put simply, they say, drivers should always stop for approaching trains. 

"It’s just not worth the risk to try and beat a train," said Lisa Freeman, executive director for the LHSC. "Your life is worth so much more than a few saved minutes."

The Highway Safety Research Group at LSU  reported there were seven fatal crashes  involving trains in Louisiana in 2016 and 32 more involving injuries. The year before, in 2015, Louisiana reported two crashes that involved fatalities and 28 injury crashes, according to the research group's data. 

While up sharply in 2016, the number of fatal crashes fluctuates from year-to-year. There were five crashes involving fatalities in 2013 and four in 2014. 

Three fatal crashes were reported for 2017 but Corey Hutchinson, director of the Highway Safety Research Group, said complete data for the year won't be in until the summer so that number could change. 

"We don't get the full data until the end of the summer for the previous year," Hutchinson said. 

What's happening in Louisiana appears to be following the same trend as the rest of the country. 

Although railroad-crossing crashes have been on the decline for the past decade other data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests a spike nationally between 2015 and 2016.

The NHTSA says the number of people killed in railroad crossing accidents in 2016 was up 16 percent from a year earlier. 

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The national traffic administration claims most of the deaths could have been prevented had drivers not participated in risky behavior and made poor decisions.

"What that means is many drivers appear to be ignoring the controls and putting themselves and passengers in danger," Freeman said. "People don’t realize, perhaps, the laws of physics. A freight train that is traveling 55 mph needs at least a mile to come to a complete stop with an emergency break."

Safety experts identified a rail crossing in New Iberia as one of the state's most dangerous after five people were killed in crash there in December 2015. The vehicle they were in got stopped on the tracks as an Amtrak passenger train was approaching, with traffic stopped in front of and behind it.

The crossing, located along La. 88, was only outfitted with a stop sign and a sign that warned drivers against stopping on the tracks.  

More recently, in September 2017, an 82-year-old man was killed in Slidell when he drove around crossing arms and onto the tracks as an Amtrak passenger train was approaching. 

And two siblings died in June 2016 at a railroad crossing at La. 1 and Dorcy Road in White Castle when their vehicle was struck by a train. But that crossing was not outfitted with warning signs or crossing guards. 

"You do not walk away unscathed from a train collision," Freeman said. "All these errors and miscalculations equal a real fatal consequence potentially." 

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.