I have been thinking how much fun it would be to go bungee-jumping from a railroad trestle, but have decided to resist the temptation.
Turns out there’s always a chance of getting hit by a train. Who knew?
Luckily, an outfit called Operation Lifesaver is here with a railroad-trestle code of safety, and bungee jumping is not its only no-no. Hunting or fishing are also strongly discouraged. This is a real bunch of spoilsports.
Operation Lifesaver describes itself as “a non-profit organization providing public education programs in all 50 states to prevent collisions, injuries and fatalities on and around railroad tracks and highway-rail grade crossings.”
Operation Lifesaver’s efforts seem to be paying off. When was the last time you heard that a bungee jumper had been killed by a locomotive?
Lots of other people did get struck by trains in America, however. It happens about once every three hours, so we still have plenty of people who need to be told that it is dangerous to drive onto a track when a train is bearing down. “Public education,” as usual, consists of stating the obvious.
But we evidently need to hear it in Louisiana, where seven people have been killed by trains in the last three months alone. Any day it seems you will see some car approach a crossing where the lights are flashing and the bells ringing, but continue on and weave around the barriers. Most of the time, the car will beat the train, but by no means always. The body of a driver who tried it in Vernon Parish was recovered from his mangled SUV last month.
The other six recent fatalities occurred when cars came to a halt on grade crossings only for trains to show up and mow them down. You can see drivers taking such a risk any day at, for instance, the crossing on Metairie Road in Jefferson Parish. Traffic backs up because there is a red light just ahead, so there is no way out the other side for drivers who elect to wait on the railroad track. Then it’s panic stations when a train rounds the bend about 100 yards away.
Every time there is a collision, the crossing has to be closed and traffic jams are worse than ever. No doubt some economist could calculate the cost in lost productivity.
Little ol’ Louisiana leads the nation, per capita, in railroad fatalities. Last year, we had 13, behind only California (32), Illinois (24) and Texas (19). Florida and New York, each with about 15 million more citizens to run over than we have, came in with 10 and 8 deaths, respectively. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we are also at the wrong end of the national table when academic standards are measured.
It might, however, be a mistake to assume it takes an idiot to get accidentally hit by a train. A very bright attorney friend of mine had his car damaged at the Metairie Road crossing not long ago, when he was apparently thinking about a case. So no one can say Operation Lifesaver is wasting its time when urging us to remain attentive and otherwise harping on the self-evident.
By now, however, there cannot be anyone left who doesn’t know that a train can take an hour to stop and that you will never win an argument with one.
Although not all the 78 Louisiana drivers who got hit by trains last year will have been idiots, you have to figure that plenty of them were. As to why people drive around the barriers, the answer is that they can. They will keep getting killed so long as it is possible to do so. Thus, it is clearly insane that, when the arms come down, they only stretch half way across the track in either direction. If they had been long enough to block traffic entirely, that poor fellow in Vernon Parish would still be with us. Surely we could design safer crossings.
Nationally, the situation is improving; in 1972 when Operation Lifesaver started out, collisions were almost six times as frequent as they are now.
Meanwhile, I’m taking no chances. If you fancy some bungee-jumping, meet me on the Mississippi River bridge.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.