'Distracted walking' across Utah rails could bring fines
The Utah Transit Authority wants to outlaw distracted walking across railroad tracks, possibly taking laws against distracted driving to a new level.
In response to a rash of TRAX and FrontRunner accidents over the past year, the UTA board is working on an ordinance to ban such things as texting, talking on a cell phone, listening to music with headphones or using other electronics by pedestrians as they cross rail tracks.
A first violation would results in a fine of $50, and repeat offenses would cost $100 under an ordinance given initial endorsement Wednesday by the UTA's Stakeholder Relations Committee. It now goes to the full UTA board for possible final adoption later this month.
Also, additional ordinance changes given initial endorsement on Tuesday would create fines of up to $300 for a first offense and $500 thereafter for drivers or pedestrians who try to rush through moving gates at a TRAX or FrontRunner crossings, who move through crossings with flashing warning lights, or travel along track grades.
UTA General Counsel Bruce Jones told the subcommittee that like cities, UTA has the power under state law to adopt ordinances that UTA police can enforce by issuing tickets punishable by fines. They are considered civil violations, not criminal.
Jennifer Rigby, UTA senior counsel, said the board is looking at banning dangerous behavior around tracks as part of its push for increased safety after a rash of rail accidents in the past year.
While attorneys initially proposed a specific list of behaviors that would be proof of distracted behavior punishable by fines, it broadened language at the suggestion of UTA Board Chairman Greg Hughes, who is also a state legislator, to ban any distracted behavior with a list of some examples such as texting or using cell phones and electronics.
"You can be just as distracted reading a newspaper or magazine as you can be by texting," Hughes said, wanting to ensure that officers could issue tickets or warnings for that also.
UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said that in 2011 and so far in 2012, TRAX and FrontRunner trains had 10 accidents with pedestrians, including six fatalities although three were ruled suicides. It has been waging a high-profile advertising campaign for months, urging people to pay more attention around tracks.
Of note, The Tribune spent two hours in December watching monitors at the TRAX operations center, and witnessed 79 potentially fatal acts around TRAX trains one about every 90 seconds.
The behaviors included pedestrians ignoring lowered gates and flashing lights; pedestrians walking on tracks wearing headphones; cars gunning through lowering gates; and people running in front of trains approaching stations. Under the proposed ordinance changes, all of those could lead to fines.
The Legislature this month also passed SB195 by Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, to make ignoring warnings at rail crossings a violation of state law. It is awaiting signature by Gov. Gary Herbert. Pedestrians and TRAX
79 • Number of potentially fatal acts around TRAX trains seen by a Tribune reporter who spent two hours at a TRAX monitoring station.
$50 • Amount of initial fine that a proposed ordinance would impose on pedestrians for texting, talking on a cellphone or listening to music with headphones while crossing rail tracks.