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Railroads, Victims’ Advocate Group Lock Horns Over Crossing Accident Fault

(New Canaan, Connecticut – February 14, 2012)

What started out as a factual article about railroad grade crossing and pedestrian accidents in the state of Connecticut soon turned into a blame game. Railroad accident victims’ advocacy organization have taken on the railroads’ philosophy of: “We always have the right-of-way and accidents are always the victim’s fault.”

In a Valentine’s Day feature by Frank Juliano, a staff writer for the New Canaan News in Fairfield County, CT, it was stated that, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, “In the last 11 years, 70 people have died in 62 train crossing accidents in Connecticut.” The writer went on to cite statistics gleaned from both FRA records as well as reports by Hearst Connecticut Newspapers which showed that “five rail crossings in Fairfield County were the site of five or more collisions each, while one crossing, at Camp Avenue in Darien, had 11.”

But when it came to questions of fault in accidents at railroad crossings, the article said “Rail industry officials show the overwhelming cause of these accidents is driver error, often a failure to heed crossing gates and other safety measures.” With regard to pedestrians the article stated: “since the railroads own the tracks and some adjacent property, pedestrians crossing the tracks are routinely considered trespassers.” Importantly, the article noted that railroad officials write the incident reports filed with the FRA, and adding “motorists are almost always found at fault in collisions with trains, largely because a 1924 federal law gives trains the right-of-way over any other moving vehicle.”

Not so, argued Vicky Moore, who founded the “Angels on Track” railroad accident victim’s advocacy group, along with her husband, after their son was killed in a railroad grade crossing accident when he was a passenger in a car hit by a train at a non-gated crossing in Ohio. She charged that “accident investigators are sometimes too quick to blame the motorist or pedestrian and that the system of analyzing accidents is tilted toward blaming the person who got hit.”

Moore added that “when a pedestrian is killed, it is easy to claim suicide. We’ve even had a case where a family with Christmas presents in their car was struck by a train and killed, and the case was at first ruled a suicide. Yes, it does happen, but it shouldn’t be assumed.”

FRA spokesman Warren Flateau admitted that “Railroads do sometimes get the blame,” but countered his statement with “It’s fairly rare, but it does happen, especially in judgments in lawsuits.”

And while Moore pointed out that while railroads are required to report every accident involving a vehicle or pedestrian, federal officials do not investigate most of them. Another FRA spokesman, Michael England, confirmed that few are investigated, but insisted that several thousand accidents are reported to the FRA annually.