Worthy Cause Gains Wings

The Daily Record 

June 14, 1999

by: Lisa Watts

Vicky and Denny Moore never meant to become experts on railroad safety, county government or state utility regulations.

"My husband and I are just normal people. We didn't know how government works," Vicky Moore said.

That all changed for the Canal Fulton couple on March 25, 1995, the day their son Ryan, 16, was thrown from a car at a railroad crossing on the Wayne-Stark county line.

Six teenagers were in the car.

Three of them, including Ryan, died. Their older son, Jason, now 22, was driving. He walks today with a steel bar in one leg from his hip to his knee.

Vicky Moore also never meant to head up a multi-million dollar foundation, but that's what she is doing with the almost $6 million her family was awarded, after attorney fees, from a civil suit against the railroad.

The Angels on Track Foundation works to help counties in Ohio pay their part of matching funds to install more safety gates and lights at dangerous railroad crossings.

Recently the Moores' foundation supplied the local funding--more than $60,000--for upgrades at three crossings in Wayne County. That work-scheduled for Geyers Chapel, Eby and Back Orrville roads-should be completed by May 2000.

Vicky Moore said her family never thought twice about where their millions should go.

"The money didn't mean anything to my husband or me---there wasn't anything we could buy with that money that would make us feel better about losing Ryan," she said.

"You can only sue for money. You can't sue for an apology, or to make it right."

The foundation's support, though, may make things right for future generations of drivers across the state.

Because Ohio has served as a national hub for rail lines east and west, north and south, the state has a large number of crossing--6,500--concentrated within its borders.

Wayne County alone has 102 crossings, "an amazing number," Commissioner Cheryl Noah said. She heads the county's railroad safety task force.

The state once ranked near the top in railroad crossing fatalities, but those numbers have dropped steadily in the last 10 years, said Rob Marvin, chief of the railroad division of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

"Ten years ago, 64 people were killed, There were 14 last year," Marvin said, two of those in Wayne County.

As the Moores well know, though, one death is tragedy enough.

Beginning her research after Ryan's accident, Vicky Moore learned that her son was one of eight people killed in seven years at the Deerfield Avenue crossing. The only warning: the state's wooden, yellow and black crossbuck sign.

The state and federal government already had recognized that crossing as dangerous by putting it on a priority list. Eight months after Ryan's accident, the railroad installed safety gates and lights there.

Of the state's 6,500 crossings, almost half are marked with crossbuck signs, Moore said.

"In our minds, all crossings should have gates and lights, an active warning system," she said.

The hitch is the cost. Installing safety gates and lights typically costs between $100,000 and $120,000, Marvin said.

The train-activated lights and gates are funded in two ways. Under a federal program funded by highway taxes, Ohio receives close to $100,000 each month to upgrade as many crossings as possible from a prioritized list.

That work is done at no cost to local highway authorities or the state, but local groups don't have a say in which crossings are upgraded.

The prority list is based on a formula that looks at traffic counts, fatalities, angle of approach and other such factors.

The state offers a second program based on matching funds fromlocal communities. County task forces that identify crossings of particular concern can ask PUCO for funding assistance. The local highway authority and PUCO split 90 percent of the cost, and the railroads are asked to chip in 10 percent.

Under the state program, about 15 crossings are upgraded each year, Marvin said.

"But $45,500, $50,000 is still a lost of money for townships and small municipalities," he said. "Vicky's foundation helps by picking up the local share of the costs."

The Moores read about the Wayne County task force forming and attended monthly meetings for about a year. The group includes Noah, county emergency management director Ralph Linsalata, representatives from the Wooster Post of the State Highway Patrol and the sheriff's office, an Ohio Deparment of Transportation representative and concerned citizens.

After reading about the local task force, the Moores started a similar group in Stark County. They also have consulted with a number of other counties, including Delaware and Carroll, to get more task forces up and running.

Moore, Marvin, and Noah all said they are making great headway in making railroad crossings safer.

In the last 10 years, some 1,000 crossings across Ohio have received gates.

But Moore said she finds her work depressing. The railroads, not concerned communities, should be paying for the safety equipment, she said.

"The railroad companies say it's not their responsibility. But if they want to have commerce through our communities, they should protect us from their trains," she said. "Look at the automakers--we made them install airbags and steel beams to protect us. Why don't they make railroad companies do the same thing?"

From the railroad company perspective, said Marvin, federal officials have deemed safety gates and other warning systems as highway devices to protect drivers, not rail equipment to protect the trains.

"The railroad to their credit, don't have to participate in our state program at all. Their 10 percent contribution is a voluntary program, but we've never had a railroad say "no".

Half of all fatalities occur at crossing with gates and lights, Marvin notes, so active warning devices alone don't ensure safety.

Noah knows those statistics, too.

"I'm not trying to protect the railroads," she said, "but the majority of crossing accidents are driver created. In most instances, poor decisions were made by the driver."

Noah said she was appalled last year when her task force was invited to ride a train from Wayne County to Alliance.

"Honestly, I thought they staged these things,that they paid people to drive around the gates and barriers," she said of watching people trying to dodge the warning system.

"I would hate to be an engineer out there."

"It's like what we have now (the gates and lights) are so common-place, drivers see them like traffic lights, just an impediment to where they want to be going," Noah said.

Moore, though, is adamant that the railroad companies need to take more responsibility.

Her days are full of lobbying efforts, talking to the media and meeting with local groups. It might seem glamorous work for the former director of a senior center, but she doesn't relish the role.

"This isn't fun. It's not something my husband or I enjoy," she said. "It's a constant reminder of what happened to my son."

"I get depressed, because I don't think we as local communities should have to do this. When we do see gates and lights installed, maybe that will feel better. It's the only thing we can do for Ryan."



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