Illinois will have the strictest penalties in the nation beginning Jan. 1, 2017 for vehicular offenses associated with attempting to cross railroad tracks after grade-crossing systems have activated.
Metra will double the fines for drivers who disregard activated railroad gates and warning lights from $250 to $500 for a first offense and from $500 to $1,000 for a second or subsequent offense. The fine increase is part of an amendment to the Illinois Vehicle Code that becomes law on Jan. 1 and was signed by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner in July 2016.
The legislation was initiated by Metra this spring as part of a larger initiative to help promote rail safety awareness and eliminate preventable injuries and deaths at highway-rail grade crossings.
Illinois has the second-largest rail system of any state with more than 7,300 miles of railroad track and 10,363 public highway-rail crossings. In 2015, Illinois also had the third-highest number of rail crossing collisions (140, behind Texas and California), the second-highest number of rail crossing fatalities (24, behind California) and the third-highest number of rail crossing injuries (79, behind Texas and North Carolina), according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Two hundred and forty-four people died in highway-rail crashes nationwide in 2015. A pedestrian or vehicle-train collision occurs every three hours on average nationwide.
“Drivers who think they can beat a train on the tracks often suffer dangerous and deadly consequences,” said bill sponsor Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-33rd District). “I hope these increased fines will help make drivers think twice before deciding to take their chances and put their lives at risk at railroad crossings.”
“These incidents are entirely avoidable,” said bill sponsor Rep. Michael W. Tryon (R-66th District). “With the second largest rail system in the nation, we must do all we can to help discourage and prevent injuries and fatalities on railroad tracks.”
“The message is simple: when the gates are activated, stay off the tracks or you will pay the price through these increased fines or worse,” said Metra’s Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno. “In addition to the tragic injuries or loss of life that can result when a vehicle is struck by a train, collisions at railroad crossings can impact thousands of Metra customers, who can be delayed for hours waiting for first responders to clear the accident scene, and delay other motorists who are forced to find alternate routes. Also, let’s not forget the trauma experienced by locomotive engineers and conductors when these incidents occur and work together to prevent accidents and injuries along the railroad.”
Illinois Operation Lifesaver says that nearly 75 to 80 percent of vehicle/train collisions occur at crossings with active warning devices, including lights, gates and bells. Metra conducts Operation Lifesaver Safety Blitzes at train stations across its six-county service area throughout the year as part of ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the importance of safe behavior around its trains and tracks. In 2016, 45 safety blitzes were conducted.