NJ: Train Deaths Drive New Approach to Safety

A coalition of state and federal representatives is to come up with a national model for reducing train fatalities by finding ways to keep young people from trespassing on the tracks, state Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson said on Wednesday.

Simpson, who last month said he was troubled by the Oct. 2 death of 13-year-old Michael Cabaj at a Garfield crossing, said the New Jersey Safety at Railroad Crossings Leadership Oversight Committee must also find ways to reach adults because data show that adults are a big part of the problem.

"Eighty-seven percent of the fatalities from trespassing at grade crossings are adults," he said. "If 87 percent of the problem is adults, is there any help for the children?

"As a parent or a guardian, it's your responsibility first to see that your children are safe when they go out of the homes, and as an adult the only way you can set an example is by obeying the law yourself," Simpson said. "We have too many irresponsible people in the state."

High-ranking officials serving on the committee met for the first time on Wednesday afternoon in Newark to lay the framework. They expect to release a list of recommendations in 60 days.

The committee includes representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Highway Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, state Department of Education, state police, New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, the state's Division of Highway Traffic Safety, NJ Transit police, the state Department of Transportation and Operation Lifesaver -- a national organization that works with rail agencies to educate the public on rail safety.

"We were looking at the case in Garfield," Simpson said after the meeting. "When we looked at that, we said, 'Are we as a state doing everything we can to reduce the likelihood of that happening?' "

Deaths on trestle

Two teenage boys were also struck and killed by a train while trespassing on a trestle in Wayne the day before Cabaj's death. And a pedestrian was killed Wednesday by an Amtrak train in Hamilton even as the rail safety committee was meeting.

Cabaj, witnesses said, was on a scooter when the accident occurred. Witnesses said a train had passed and the safety gates were still down when Cabaj ducked under the gates to cross the tracks, unaware that a second train was approaching from the opposite direction. It killed him.

The day before, three other teens were trespassing on a train trestle in Wayne. Two were killed. The third survived after jumping onto an embankment.

Simpson is calling the template "E-Cubed" because he said it will focus on three areas: education, enforcement and education.

NJ Transit Police Chief Christopher Trucillo said there are locations where "a large number of commuters in the morning just totally disregard a gate that is down and flashing."

Trucillo said he would like the public to voluntarily comply with safety devices such as flashing lights and gates that are closed. But if there isn't voluntary compliance, it will be necessary to issue tickets for trespassing.

Kevin O'Connor, head of NJ Transit's rail division, said there were 28 fatal rail collisions in 2010, 13 of which were suicides. Five were at grade crossings, he said.

So far this year, NJ Transit had 20 rail deaths, six of which were confirmed suicides and eight of which were possible suicides. Three of the deaths were at grade crossings, O'Connor said.

Simpson said NJ Transit has already begun looking at its more than 300 grade crossings and is reaching out to schools. He said more schools have been calling the agency since the recent teen deaths.

Penny Bassett Hackett, spokeswoman for NJ Transit, said the agency has a School Safety Program that provides rail safety education presentations at about 150 schools each year. It reaches about 30,000 students, agency officials said.

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