Utah Transit Authority police have written just one ticket using a new, controversial ordinance that outlaws "distracted walking" around railways during the three months that the law has been on the books.
But they have used another ordinance with penalties that are twice as high hundreds of times during the same period to punish similar misbehavior. That law bans trespassing on railways, including jaywalking across them. Fines for the offense have been $100 compared with $50 for distracted walking. But recent changes allow fines for those right-of-way violations to be $300 for a first offense and $500 for additional infractions.
Information obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune under state open records law shows that the one ticket for a "distracted walking" violation came on June 1 at the 2100 South TRAX crossing in Salt Lake City when a pedestrian wearing headphones "ducked under the arm gate … and ran in front of a train," causing the train to hit its emergency brakes.
"The gate and the train weren't enough to get this individual's attention," UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said, "so perhaps a $50 civil citation may help this person be more safe around our trains in the future."
The UTA district is an official political subdivision of Utah, somewhat like a city, and its board adopted an ordinance in late March outlawing "distracted walking" around railways, which includes activities such as talking on cellphones, listening to music with headphones or texting while crossing tracks.
The UTA board has said the ordinance is not intended to raise money through fines but to help raise awareness about safety while rail-related accidents have increased.
UTA's response to The Tribune's data request said it has used the new ordinance to issue "many" verbal warnings, but it has not tracked the number, and it has issued no formal written warnings.
"The fact we have an ordinance on the books gives our transit police an opportunity to go up and educate [people]," Carpenter said. "It creates an environment where we can have a little more serious conversation than we could without having the ordinance on the books."
He adds that UTA police understand this "is something new and hasn't been done in other communities around the country," so it has opted mostly to give warnings so far. But that could change.
"As we continue our educational effort and put things out like more signage that identifies what safe behavior is, then we may more aggressively enforce it," Carpenter said. He added that at particularly troublesome spots, UTA police may choose to have safety blitzes where many written warnings are issued, followed later by additional crackdowns where officers write real tickets.
Meanwhile, UTA has issued hundreds of tickets for trespassing into the TRAX right of way, such as jaywalking across it, through an ordinance that has been on the books for years and has higher fines.
Carpenter said UTA police issued 134 such tickets in April and 171 in May. UTA wrote 1,250 such citations in 2011. He said UTA has been issuing fines of $100 for a first offense. However, the UTA board, at the same time it adopted the "distracted walking" ordinance in March, allowed increasing right-of-way fines to $300 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent violations.
He noted that police for UTA and Salt Lake City have had some joint "safety blitzes" at spots such as the Library or Gallivan Plaza stations where UTA police ticketed some violators for right-of-way violations, and city police nabbed others for jaywalking.
Of note, UTA last month unsuccessfully asked the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee to consider making "distracted walking" a violation of state law, which would put more teeth into the agency's ability to collect fines.
Currently, UTA fines are civil, not criminal. If fines go unpaid, UTA can only ban offenders from using its system. Violations of state law could lead to bench warrants for unpaid fines.
But the committee rejected the request on an 11-4 vote.
"You can't legislate [not being] stupid," Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, said at the time. "This is way out of bounds. I'm surprised we have the guts to look at stuff like this."
As new TRAX lines opened, UTA has pushed the "distracted walking" ordinance amid a spike in the number of rail accidents. In 2011, Carpenter said 17 vehicle or pedestrian accidents occurred with TRAX or FrontRunner trains. They included 10 pedestrian accidents and seven involving vehicles. They produced seven fatalities (including three that were ruled suicides).
So far in 2012, Carpenter said 20 accidents occurred with TRAX or FrontRunner trains, including six involving pedestrians and 14 with vehicles. They have produced three fatalities, including two that were deemed suicides.