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Amid criticism of its design of a railroad crossing where a teenager was struck and killed by a TRAX train that she likely could not see coming, the Utah Transit Authority now says it wants to become a national leader in improving pedestrian safety at crossings.
It is launching a number of initiatives, from seeking a National Academy of Sciences study to developing national standards for pedestrian crossings to forming its own safety department and expanding educational programs against "distracted walking," when people wear headphones or chat on cellphones at crossings.
UTA General Manager Michael Allegra said Friday that most standards for rail crossings now focus on keeping cars safe, and few focus on pedestrians.
"I think the industry is ripe for enhancing those components," because of recent accidents and close calls, he said. "I want to be a leader in that."
UTA's initiative comes after Shariah Casper, 15, was killed by a TRAX train on the new Mid-Jordan line on June 8. She and a cousin waited for an eastbound train to pass, then she stepped in front of a westbound train that killed her. A 12-foot-high sound wall obstructed the view of that train. No lights or gates were directly in front of Casper, although they were operating at other parts of the crossing.
Allegra said he cannot comment specifically about that accident because Casper's family has hired a lawyer and filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit. The Caspers' attorney did not return a call Friday seeking reaction to the UTA initiatives.
Allegra said he has worked with managers of other transit systems in the West, and in their behalf will probably next week submit "a request for a study to upgrade the pedestrian railroad crossing standards in this country" by the National Academy of Sciences.
He said that UTA's own quick review of current national and international pedestrian standards shows "there aren't many, and most systems just use their own best judgment."
He said he has also been appointed to several national industry boards and committees recently where he also plans to push for enhanced standards for pedestrian safety and educational programs.
At UTA itself, Allegra said the newly formed safety department will look at all facets of safety involving pedestrians, riders, workers, trains and buses.
The department was formed by shifting safety offices out of several departments and combining them. Allegra also said he is adding employees to that new department that will be headed by a chief safety officer.
"I will have that department report directly to me so that I will have an immediate report on safety," he said.
A new committee that Allegra heads also will meet monthly to act on safety issues and UTA is making meeting safety goals a part of all employee evaluations.
UTA already has a full-time team that teaches crossing safety in schools, Allegra said, adding that UTA police recently started talking to children walking to school about crossing safety as they pass out bracelets and stickers that look like police badges.
Allegra said UTA plans to do more to ask riders and others to call and report problems, and ensure that employees who respond to calls and Twitter posts take all communications seriously and ensure the proper offices see them.
The Tribune reported a week ago that documents it obtained through open-records law requests showed that months before Casper's death, a woman whose family is full of rail workers warned UTA that the sound walls on the Mid-Jordan line would likely contribute to someone's death.
Also, Jordan School District officials had reported a close call between a train and a child peeking around a sound wall a few weeks before the accident that killed Casper. UTA has declined to release documents that may show how it responded to such complaints, saying their release may harm "homeland security." The Tribune has appealed.
Allegra said UTA also hopes to combat "distracted walking" by pedestrians by becoming a key partner in existing state and national educational safety programs. He said train operators constantly report problems with people wearing headphones and talking on cellphones.
Allegra said while many groups talk about the dangers of texting while driving, "Have you ever tried to text and walk? I submit to you it is even more difficult because you are really not paying attention at all to where you are going."