The third fatality involving a pedestrian and a SMART train since the year-old commuter network began service needs to prompt a conversation about how to ensure safety around at-grade pedestrian crossings.
The first two fatalities were suicides, but authorities said Friday that the death of Joseph De Frates was an accident. The 29-year-old man was wearing headphones and looking down as he walked on to the track on Aug. 30 in Rohnert Park. He apparently didn’t realize a train was approaching.
Steve Birdlebough, advocacy chairman of Sonoma County Transportation and Land Use Coalition, suggests adding sidewalk gates at SMART crossings.
That’s an idea worth investigating as trains again become a part of the county’s daily life. “They’re here to stay,” Birdlebough said in a letter to the Sonoma County Transportation, “and we need to learn to live with them.”
Distractions such as headphones and cellphones contribute to accidents in crosswalks and at train crossings across the country, and there’s no reason to believe that pedestrians are going to stop focusing on their electronic devices when they should be looking for traffic, including trains.
This isn’t just a problem in Sonoma County. California saw the highest number of pedestrians struck by trains in the nation last year, with 214 pedestrians hit — 123 of whom died. (Texas was second with 93 people hit and 41 deaths.)
The SMART system has 63 at-grade crossings along the 43-mile route from Airport Boulevard to San Rafael. Some have sidewalk gates, but many don’t. There isn’t a sidewalk gate at Golf Course Drive, where De Frates was struck.
Adding gates wouldn’t be cheap, but it could saves lives and prevents accidents.
David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County supervisor and SMART board member, said he favors a study of additional safety measures at crossings. He also thinks localities and the counties should share some of the cost burden — which seems completely reasonable.
He’s a realist about the prospects of preventing accidents, rightly pointing out that some are inevitable, especially when people act foolishly or recklessly. “Looking at the spectrum of safety, you can never guarantee that no instance will occur,” he said. “You make sure that everything is maintained and properly installed … but that doesn’t preclude something from happening.”
Still, it’s important to take what measures can reasonably be taken — short of the suggestion by Rohnert Park Public Safety Cmdr. Aaron Johnson that the only way to prevent all accidents would be to “encapsulate this thing in a tube.”
SMART officials say they are doing all they can. “Safety is our top priority,” SMART spokeswoman Jeanne Belding said in a statement. “SMART reviews every incident to see if there are any additional safety measures that can be implemented based on human behavior, including distractions. Once our review is completed, SMART will implement any additional safeguards as needed.”
Maybe sidewalk gates at pedestrian crossings would prevent more accidents. Surely, it’s at least worth performing a cost-benefit analysis. Once a cost estimate is developed, SMART and the transportation authority could discuss funding options with the localities and Sonoma and Marin counties.
Accidents will happen — and fast-moving trains are especially unforgiving. But SMART and local officials should do everything within reason to prevent the preventable.