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TRAX safety improving after 2-year campaign

Mixed results » But bus, FrontRunner accident numbers not so good.

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Engineering • Many of the engineering changes grew out of a tragedy in June 2011 when 15-year-old Shariah Casper was killed by a TRAX test train on the new Mid-Jordan line in West Jordan. She had waited for one train to pass, and was killed by a second train moving in the other direction — which was difficult to see because of sound walls.

After the accident, UTA removed or rebuilt sound walls that obstructed pedestrians’ view. It put warning alarms and gates where pedestrians can better see and hear them. The agency added numerous warning signs and gates to encourage stopping and looking. UTA also no longer allows pedestrians in new stations to walk directly across tracks, but makes them zigzag through fences. It plans to do the same at older stations.

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Other steps were taken, such as increasing the volume on train warning bells. The agency even started putting warning signs on sidewalk surfaces so people with their heads down will see them, said Goeres. "We have to change with society. As [people] are being more distracted, we have to try to get their attention."

Enforcement • Goeres worries about "hoodies, hand-helds and headphones. People are in their own world now. They have headphones in, they are looking down at their phone, they’ve got their hoodie up so they don’t see around them" — so much of the safety campaign is aimed at getting people to be aware of what’s going on around them.

That led the UTA board to adopt a controversial ordinance early in the safety campaign to outlaw and ticket "distracted walking" around trains and buses.

UTA issued only 17 such citations last year, according to agency records. But Goeres says the law allowed officers to warn many others..

Slow learners • Data show that many people aren’t paying attention to safety messages — nor oncoming trains and buses.

Bus and train operators were responsible for just 14 percent of UTA accidents last year. Others — motorists, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians — caused 86 percent of them. People other than UTA operators also were to blame for 76 percent of UTA accidents in 2011 and 88 percent in 2012.

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Among the reasons reported to the federal government for UTA accidents last year: "motor vehicle hit bike, which was pushed under train"; "bike ran into bus"; "pedestrian walked in front of bus"; and "pedestrian walked into train."

Last year 28 of the 45 UTA accidents were caused by motorists who violated traffic laws and crashed into a train or bus. Those accidents ranged from motorists turning left into trains to running red lights and crashing into buses to rear-ending buses stopped for passengers.

"You have to be aware when you’re around the system, if you’re riding it, if you are crossing it," Goeres says. "Just like the train can’t stop, the bus often can’t stop."

Most of the fatalities last year were from suicides.

UTA fault • In some of the accidents, of course, UTA is at fault.

Last year, for example, a TRAX train ran into a train car that had become uncoupled without anyone noticing. Several buses rear-ended other vehicles. One bus hit a pedestrian in an intersection. In other years, buses hit trees or walls.

UTA has worked hard to improve its culture of safety, Goeres says. That includes opening any UTA meeting with a "safety minute"; sending a weekly safety message; having a different safety poster monthly; and giving pins and freebies with safety messages for employees to pass out to passengers and others.

"We are pleased in the direction we are going, and everyone’s focus on safety," Goeres says. But he adds that every accident has the potential to hurt or kill someone, not to mention delaying and upsetting passengers — and that UTA still has far to go.

Every accident prompts a discussion between Goeres and UTA General Manager Michael Allegra.

"He always asks me, ‘What else can we do?’ " Goeres says. "And we keep looking for that, and will keep working on it."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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