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While some Utah Transit Authority board members argued that the threat of being killed by a train should be enough potential punishment for "distracted walking" around rails, the board decided Wednesday also to impose fines for it.
The board voted 11-3 to create a $50 civil fine for distracted walking around UTA rail lines, and repeat offenses would cost $100. It comes after a rash of train accidents in recent months.
The new ordinance says examples of walking while distracted include but are not limited to talking on cellphones, listening to music with headphones, texting, "attending to personal hygiene" or reading newspapers or magazines while crossing tracks.
But board member Troy Walker, a defense attorney, questioned the wisdom of it. "I struggle with criminalizing everyday conduct," he said. "We're going to make it a crime to have your headphones in walking along crossing the tracks. Does it really make us safer?"
UTA General Counsel Bruce Jones said it should by making it clear that the action is banned, and by raising more public awareness about the problem.
Walker said it may be hard to prove distracted behavior to a judge. But Jones said police can judge it, and, "If someone appeared to have their head down and walks into the side of the train and they had earphones, that would probably be a pretty good set of evidence that they were distracted."
Walker responded, "So are we going up to the hospital to cite them? … We can criminalize all the activity we want. But getting hit by a train is a pretty good lesson."
But board member Robert Hunter said that is a lesson too many are not learning in time. "Two of the most recent UTA accidents were people walking into our vehicles. They actually walked into them. That shows you how much attention has been paid."
Board member Keith Bartholomew added it does not just affect the people who are hit. "We have operators who are substantially impacted," he said. "Those psychological scars are real and nasty."
UTA attorneys noted the fines are civil, not criminal. They said if fines are unpaid, UTA could ban offenders from using its buses and trains or send the matters to collection if amounts involved are big enough. Jones said he doubts UTA police would look to hand out tickets for distracted walking often, but could use them to help warn and potentially save people whom they see are distracted.
Also on Wednesday, the board made an additional ordinance change to 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 TRAX or FrontRunner crossings, who move through crossings with flashing warning lights, or travel along track grades.
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.
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 City, to outlaw ignoring warnings at rail crossings.