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.
Age appeared to be a contributing factor, the study said. Twenty-five percent of respondents over 70 did not notice any warning signs or devices, compared with 9 percent of those between 61 and 70 years old, who topped all others in awareness of signage. People under 21 and between 21 and 30 were the next two age groups with reduced awareness, the study said.
While 86 percent of pedestrians studied at the crossings were walking without having their attention focused on any distractions, 7 percent were listening to music on earphones and 2 percent were talking or texting on mobile phones, the survey reported.
"It is a big concern when you have people who are both distracted and involved in a platoon type of behavior, like large groups of pedestrians getting off of trains and crossing tracks,'' Metaxatos said.
"There is a greater tendency to just follow the other people instead of paying attention to safety signs, and an increased risk of crossing while a second train is coming from the other direction,'' he said.
Fifty percent of respondents on mobile phones indicated they had not noticed a warning device or sign, the study reported.
"Among users listening to music on earphones or pushing a stroller, 1 in 4 showed a lack of relevant awareness. Moreover, 1 in 5 walkers and 1 in 12 bicyclists showed a similar trait," the study said.
The large number of rail "quiet zone" crossings in the Chicago area where trains do not sound horns likely puts distracted pedestrians and cyclists at a disadvantage, the study said.
"Distracted non-motorists, especially when traveling in groups, in such an environment may not be sufficiently alerted to an incoming train, especially when a second train is coming from the opposite direction," the report said.
For those who noticed the warning devices and signs, pedestrian gates appeared to have attracted their attention the most, followed by flashing lights as well as electronic signs at two of the 10 locations that displayed "second train coming" warnings when trains were approaching from opposite directions, the study said.
"Other warning signs or devices did not appear to have left a lasting impression on respondents,'' the study said, although active electronic signs at crossings did seem to be noticed more frequently than static signs.
The two "second train coming" signs are at crossings in Glen Ellyn and Villa Park, both on the Metra Union Pacific West Line.
Metra has also focused on working with municipalities to build more pedestrian underpasses in recent years to separate foot traffic from trains, including a pedestrian tunnel that was part of the new design at one of two Tinley Park stations on the Metra Rock Island Line, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
One recently opened underpass is at Belmont Road on the Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line. In addition, an underpass is being planned for Lombard on the Metra Union Pacific West Line and an overpass is being planned for Wheaton on the same line, Gillis said.
"In Northbrook, we shifted a bike path so that it did not directly lead across our tracks, but instead forced cyclists to make two turns to cross, increasing the likelihood that they will be alert at the crossing,'' Gillis said.
At Telegraph Road between Lake Forest and Deerfield on the Metra Milwaukee District North Line, Metra plans to add gates to the existing flashing lights and bells at the pedestrian crossing.
The video observations at crossings by UIC researchers showed that 1,021 pedestrians broke the law by going around crossing gates or trespassing on the tracks when warning bells or lights were activated.
The study pointed out that safety upgrades at dedicated pedestrian crossings do not receive the same funding priority as improvements at roadway-rail crossings without pedestrian infrastructure such as sidewalks. It suggested that Illinois could learn some lessons from California, which is leading the way to develop engineering standards for safety improvements.
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