Union Pacific Railroad Police conducted their Operation Lifesaver program in Turlock on Thursday, January 13, 2011. The Turlock Police Department Traffic Safety Unit assisted the Union Pacific Police in their efforts to enforce, and reinforce, railroad related traffic laws.
Operation Lifesaver’s mission is to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on rail property through a nationwide network of volunteers who work to educate people about rail safety. Additionally, local and railroad law enforcement use enforcement to reduce railroad related collisions.
Union Pacific used a special train that traveled the length of the railroad tracks that traverse Turlock. Officers waited near crossings and watched for violations. The Operation Lifesaver train travels very slowly and is only a few cars long.
Some concerns by citizens about choosing the 8am to 11am timeframe to conduct the operation and seemingly trying to make people late for work or morning appoints arose after hearing about the operation.
Turlock Police released information before the operation took place explaining how the operation was to be conducted; the date, time, what was to occur, how and why the operation was taking place.
“The special train traveled between 30-70 mph on the tracks consistent with the speeds that trains normally traverse Turlock,” clarified Turlock Police Captain Michael Langston. “The train only made about four passes within the three hour enforcement period.”
Langston further explained that during these passes, the crossing arms were engaged a fraction of the normal period of time that they are engaged when a freight train passes through town. As such, there were no significant traffic delays related to this operation.
Prior to the special train’s passing, officers were already in position to view any hazardous violations. An officer also rode on the train and alerted other officers via radio when violations occurred.
Officers reported seeing drivers stopping on the crossing leaving themselves subject to being struck by a fast approaching train when traffic was backed up preventing their forward or reverse movement.
The law requires vehicles stop at least seven feet away, even when there is no train coming.
Police officers also saw drivers ignoring flashing red lights and rushing to beat the crossing arms.
Captain Langston reported that officers issued a total of 17 citations while working with the Union Pacific Police.
Despite some public perception of this life saving operation and that this operation was to raise money through citations, Captain Langston said, “most of the costs of a traffic citation is court imposed assessments that cover the costs of operating the court itself. Only a small percentage of the fine is returned to the issuing agency.”
The return on a citation is minuscule compared to the costs of operating a traffic safety unit.
“Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to do all that can be done to improve traffic safety and reduce injury traffic collision which is the sole goal of the Traffic Safety Unit,” said Langston.
In 2007, Turlock’s state ranking of cities with a population of 50,000-100,000 residents was 26/106 (1/106 being worst) relative total fatal and injury collisions. In 2009, that ranking improved to 44/104. Fatal and injury traffic collisions were reduced from 462 (2007) to 369 (2009).
“Although, this was a significant reduction there is still a great deal of room for improvement,” stated Langston. “The Traffic Safety Unit will continue their efforts to address hazardous safety violations like those at the railroad crossings as it has a direct impact on reducing fatal and injury traffic collision.”
Traffic citations are issued as part of an overall effort to educate drivers and change unsafe driving practices.
As some citizens questioned the Turlock Police Department’s prioritization in assisting with Operation Lifesaver over other crime fighting efforts, Turlock Police Chief Gary Hampton explained the role of the Traffic Safety Unit.
“It is the primary function of traffic safety officers to enhance safety for motorists and pedestrians, thus activities such as this does not take away from crime suppression, intervention and prevention efforts,” explained Chief Hampton.
“In fact, ongoing crime reduction efforts have reduced crime by more than 20 percent over the past three years – while traffic safety officers have enhanced safety on our roadways as outlined in Captain Langston’s response.”
For more information on Operation Lifesaver, visit www.oli.org.