State, Safety Activists Seek Solutions To Stem Rise In Rail Crossing Crashes

By: David Patch, Blade Staff Writer

The car-train crash in Williams County that killed five Indiana residents - including four children - a week ago today and a quadruple fatal in Crawford County in February have helped push Ohio's death toll at railroad crossings this year above the total for all of 2000.

After years of fairly steady decline, the number of crashes and pedestrian accidents at Ohio railroad crossings increased slightly last year to a total of 140, or 13 more than in 1999. It was the first such rise since 1989 and the biggest increase since 1984.

"It doesn't seem to make any sense," said Rob Marvin, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's deputy director for transportation. He maintained that Ohio has "been doing a very good job" tackling the crossing safety problem, "but this reminds us that there is still work to be done."

Sheldon Senek, the Ohio coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit educational foundation supported by the railroad industry to reduce crossing accidents, said the recent trend is proof that upgrading warning devices at crossings is only part of the safety solution.

Last year, half of all crashes in Ohio occurred at sites with active warning devices, while six of this year's 10 fatal crashes have been at such sites, Mr. Senek said.

"We need to continue aggressive education and public awareness," said Mr. Senek, a retired Ohio State Highway Patrol commander. Law enforcement agencies need to make crossing-law enforcement a higher priority too, he said.

Crossing safety activists maintain, however, that neither government agencies nor the railroad industry are devoting sufficient resources to the problem.

"They have done some things, but they haven't done enough," said Debbie Klostermeier, a Liberty Center resident whose daughter, Taneeca, died in a 1994 car-train crash near Swanton. "If they'd done enough, five people wouldn't have been killed" on July l, she said.

Vicky Moore, a trustee of Angels on Track Foundation, of Canal Fulton, Ohio, said she is particularly irked by a state official's recent disclosure that $24 million in crossing safety funds had accumulated unspent before being assigned to projects this spring.

"How long had they had that money, and how many peopleâs lives could have been saved had that money been spent?" said Mrs. Moore, who used a $7 million jury award from the death of her son, Ryan, in a 1995 crossing crash to start the foundation.

The 140 crossing accidents reported last year to the state utilities commission was a little more than one-fifth the 679 accidents that occurred in Ohio 20 years earlier, and one third of the 418 reported in 1989. But it was the highest annual total since 1997, when 172 accidents occurred.

The death toll, after declining steadily through the early 1990's, has fluctuated since 1996, when it reached a modern low of 13 deaths in 12 crashes.

One reason for the death toll's sudden rise this year is that just two crashes have accounted for nine of the 10 deaths, whereas each of the 15 fatal crossing accidents in 2000 involved a single fatality.

Wanda Petre, 37; her daughters, Amber, 14, and Chelsea, 11; nephew, Bradley Krontz, 12; and Chelsea Green, 10, a member of the same church as Mrs. Petre's family, died when their car collided with a train at a crossing on Williams County Road I a week ago. The five were headed home to Angola, Ind., after a church potluck.

Less than two hours later, Shawn Steffan, 18, of Leipsic, was killed and a passenger was injured when his vehicle was struck by a train at a crossing hear his home.

Early Feb. 3, four people were killed near the Crawford County village of Chatfield when their car ran into the side of a slow-moving train, then was hit by a second train on a parallel track. John W. Moore, 26, and Shona Marie Moore, 24, of Putnam County, W. Va., twin bother Jim Moore, of Chatfield, and Denise Salyer, 25, of Willard died in the crash on State Rt. 103.

Nonetheless, the 10 fatal crashes so far this year put Ohio on a pace for its highest fatal-accident total since 1997.

State officials and Mr. Senek said there is no obvious reason for the increase in crashes and deaths. What is clear, they said, is that the crossings with the worst statistical histories have all been upgraded to full arrays of warning lights and gates.

"The easy victories have been won in the past decade," said James Seney, director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission and a former Sylvania mayor. The challenge now, he said, is predicting which of the remaining crossings are most likely to be accident scenes.

Including federal funds, Ohio allocates about $15 million annually to crossing upgrades, of which $3.2 million is spent by PUCO using a federal statistics formula.

The rail commission will devote the remainder, Mr. Seney said, to improving the warning devices along certain Ohio rail corridors that have the highest volumes of train traffic. Many crossings along those routes have warning lights and gates, but certain exceptions remain that need to be addressed, he said.

Mr. Seney conceded that the crossing at which Mrs. Petre and her four passengers died might already have been upgraded had the corridor approach been adopted sooner.

The rail line involved, which cuts diagonally across Williams County from northeast to southwest, accounted for six of the nine fatal accidents in that county between 1991 and 2000 even though an east-west mainline there had many more trains. That pattern, Mr. Seney said, indicates that the crossings involved may be problematic for motorists even though theyâre not as busy as some others.

All four of the crossings involved in those six crashes had only crossbucks signs at the time of the accidents, including the County Road 20 site where two fatal accidents occurred in 1993 and a third happened in 1995. Road 20 and County Road 10 have since been upgraded, while lights and gates at County Road H, where Sheena Jones, 17, died on June 30, 1999 in the most recent crash, are to be installed by January.

Mr. Marvin said the utilities commission has no current plan to upgrade the Thomas Avenue crossing in Alvordton, where a fatal crash occurred on June 5, 1999. He said he did not know why that was the case, but speculated that the tiny street has too little traffic to qualify under the statistically based rankings despite the fatality. The rail commissionâs corridor program may include Thomas Avenue, he said.

It was Mr. Seney who reported in April the $24 million in unspent safety money. He said the money had accumulated because previous rail commission officials spent it only in response to projects proposed by other governmental entities, rather than developing their own plan.

At an estimated $150,000 apiece, Mr. Seney said, the money should provide lights and gates for about 150 crossings. But with 2,926 of Ohio's 6,181 crossings lacking any active warning devices based on the state's most recent count; thousands will still have only crossbucks for years to come even if the installation rate accelerates.

Making exceptions only for industrial spurs that are rarely used by trains, and then only at very low speeds, Mr. Moore's foundation advocates lights and gates for all railroad crossings.

"Lights and gates have been proven to be 90 percent effective in eliminating crashes," she said.

Fred Agler, the utilities commission's transportation director, said that while universal lights and gates "certainly is a worthy goal", fiscal constraints limit how many such installations can be done, and likened lights and gates to traffic signals at intersections.

"There are a lot of places where you have only stops signs," he said.

How to increase funding for crossing improvements is a sticking point between safety activists and the railroad industry. Activists insist that the industry should contribute more to the effort, while the railroads maintain that they do their share by maintaining the warning devices perpetually after installation.

Ohio law request railroads only to post crossbucks signs, leaving it up to the state to determine which sites warrant more elaborate warning systems.

Officials are perplexed about what to do with the problem of motorists who drive around lowered crossing gates and are killed or injured in train collisions. The Fulton County Road 4 site where Taneeca Klostermeier and a companion, James Miller, 17, died in 1994 was the scene of one such crash three years later. The Hallett Avenue crossing in Swanton, where 35-year-old Brenda

Spangler, of Lucas County's Harding Township, died in early April, is similarly equipped.

But Ms. Klostermeier, whose Hands Across the Rails organization hopes to stage a trackside rally at Williams County Road I on September 8 with similar, simultaneous rallies in other states, said the relatively few deaths at gates locations are more than offset by the lives she believes are saved.

"It shouldn't be about the money," she said. "There are people losing their lives."

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