Getting around: 40% of pedestrians, cyclists would cross train tracks despite warnings

UIC study tracks 10 hot spots in Chicago area

As many as 4 out of 10 Chicago-area pedestrians and bicyclists say they are at times willing to ignore flashing lights, ringing bells and gates at railroad crossings, a UIC study has found.

The University of Illinois at Chicago researchers, who interviewed more than 300 pedestrians and bicyclists and recorded more than 7,600 others on video, even collected explanations from the some of the scofflaws.

"I live right here and know exactly how much time I have," one survey participant explained.

"Was gonna miss train," another said matter-of-factly.

The survey measured people's responses to a number of scenarios, including being in a hurry and knowing if they saw others crossing.

The highest rate of violation, 40 percent, came from people who said they would cross against the signal if they couldn't see a train coming.

Researchers also turned on video cameras at the 10 crossings in Chicago and the suburbs.

About 13 percent of 7,624 people observed crossed the tracks illegally, the study found.

The findings by the UIC Urban Transportation Center come amid a decrease in train-vehicle collisions at crossings in Illinois and across the nation over the last 10 years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Meanwhile, the number of train-pedestrian and train-bicyclist fatalities have remained relatively constant over the past decade, data show.

The failure to reduce the death toll has occurred despite stepped-up educational safety campaigns and increased police enforcement, including issuing tickets and $250 fines to violators, authorities said.

"There is limited research on the subject of how to reduce the number of collisions between trains and pedestrians and bicyclists at highway-rail and pathway-rail grade crossings,'' according to the UIC study, which was led by Paul Metaxatos, a UIC research assistant professor.

The long-term goal of the study, which was produced in April but has not yet been publicized, is to help provide more effective warnings to pedestrians and cyclists. But, researchers said, reasons for not complying must be better understood.

The survey also found that:

Sixteen percent of respondents said they would cross the tracks against a signal if others were crossing.

Nineteen percent said they would cross against a signal if they were in a hurry.

Twenty-two percent said they would cross against a signal if they thought there was enough time.

The 10 hot spots were identified as railroad crossings where train accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists have occurred or where conditions are ripe for accidents, such as crossings with a high volume of foot traffic and no sidewalks or warning gates for pedestrians at the crossings.

Layered on top of the respondents' attitudes about what level of risk they felt was acceptable, the survey also looked at the effects of group behavior at crossings and distractions, including the use of mobile phones.

"One in 6 people interviewed in the survey, when asked about warning signs and devices, said they did not notice any,'' said Metaxatos, who led the project along with researcher P.S. Sriraj.