CTS Publications

By: Dr. Harvey A. Levine, Director, Crossing to Safety®

Can you imagine a special-interest group making and distributing a short film to judges that urges those judges to fully enforce the law in regard to certain aspects of citizen behavior? Wouldn’t such a venture be presumptuous if not nervy? Wouldn’t it be redundant, or even suspicious? Don’t judges know the law, their enforcement powers and the rights of those accused of breaking the law? Why do judges have to be told to fully enforce the law when they are supposed to consider and weigh the circumstances inherent in cases before them? And yet, this is precisely what Operation Lifesaver – the non-profit, federally funded, railroad safety organization -- has done in producing a video for distribution to judges entitled, It’s Your Call. At best, the almost-12-minute video is well intentioned but misguided. At worst, it is a veiled attempt to influence the judicial process toward the notion that in virtually all cases, motorists and pedestrians are responsible for accidents at railroad crossings.

It’s Your Call contains graphic and emotional footage showing the results of vandalism on railroad property, and of collisions between trains and both motorists and pedestrians. The views and perspective of train engineers weaves throughout the video. As stated on the box cover of the video, the film is aimed at increasing judicial awareness of highway-rail safety, in that judicial support plays a crucial role in reducing the tragic accidents that occur at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights of way. This message is enhanced by the video’s closing plea to judges that states: As members of the judicial community, you have the opportunity to change the attitudes and behavior of citizens who ignore crossing laws, commit acts of vandalism and trespass on railroad rights of way. When it comes to saving lives and preventing injuries, remember, it’s your call.

It may be that at least some, if not the majority of judges, would be offended at being preached to by an organization whose Board of Directors was (in the year the video was produced) dominated by railroad personnel, other railroad interests and lobbyists. Only a single judge from the state of Washington appears in the video; Washington does not have relatively significant levels of railroad mileage, railroad crossings or railroad accidents. Furthermore, the judge seems to embrace the notion of tolerance in his own jurisdiction in that he reduces traffic citations when a person takes the time to explain it to someone else. (Komo Channel 4 News, Brian Calvert, “Got a Speeding Ticket? Just Log on to Tell it to the Judge,” September 8, 2003.) But curiosity and questions aside, there is much that is wrong with the methodology and messages in, It’s Your Call.

The video inappropriately blends, intersperses and treats three distinct types of human behavior as being of equal stature and character: (1) vandalism on railroad property (2) trespassing on railroad property, and (3) crossing railroad track. In the first instance, vandalism has criminal intent and is clearly illegal. In the second case, trespassing is often not done with malice and can range from understandably crossing track in a rural area to inappropriately using track for hiking or other recreational activities. In the third matter, being cited for failure-to-yield at a railroad crossing is often not without its judgmental and controversial aspects. For example, motorists may fail to yield to trains because the engine’s whistle isn’t sounded in adequate time, overgrown vegetation adversely affects the ability to see up and down and track; the approaching road to the crossing is of such an acute angle that inadequate vision results; and/or the track is elevated to a level that hinders both sound and sight. Clearly, motorists are not always at fault for crossing in front of approaching trains, but this is not the impression gleaned from the video. Furthermore, law enforcement officers may cite motorists at railroad crossings without knowing the law in regard to whistle warnings and adequate motorist sight lines. State police officers have informed the Foundation that there is subjective judgment in issuing citations at railroad crossings.

It’s Your Call emphasizes that railroads always have the right of way, without identifying the obligations of railroads to provide for motorists’ being able to hear and see approaching trains so that they can safely yield the right of way. Such a one-sided emphasis and ensuing omission gives the appearance that motorists are at fault for virtually all accidents and thus must be punished fully if their behavior is to change and crossing safety is to improve. This skewed message is affirmed by the video’s moderator who claims that deaths in railroad accidents is due to impatience, inattention, dangerous and illegal behavior and ignorance of the law. Furthermore, the blame-the-victim theme is enhanced by an Operation Lifesaver message that states that the nation’s declining railroad-crossing accident rate has been accomplished through public education, engineering improvements and partnering with law enforcement. Ignored are the facts that about 20% of railroad crossings have been eliminated over the past several decades; railroad operations have been significantly downsized; and, tens of thousands of automated gates – the safest device at crossings – have been installed. In essence, the impression is given that the improvement in the accident rate is due to changes in motorist behavior, largely brought about by changing motorist behavior due to Operation Lifesaver’s educational programs, as well as tough judges. If judges are to believe this distortion, then they might be apt to impose strict sentences on motorists who are cited at railroad crossings, without considering the array of circumstances affecting motorist behavior. Such attitudes may also carry over to jury trials.

When an organization that is substantially supported by an industry with a self interest in the matter asks judges to fully enforce the law against the other segment of the accident-causal community (motorists), its request smacks of propaganda or influence peddling – not education. Proper education requires a balanced approach to railroad-crossing safety. Judges are informed citizens, trained decision makers and knowledgeable of the law. Not only don’t they need one-sided messages sent to them from special interest groups, such activities are not in the public interest. Our call is that It’s Your Call is self-serving, inappropriate and wasteful. Its an improper use of tax-payer money and should be withdrawn from the market.



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