Railway Age, July 1994

The Aberdeen Carolina & Western, in partnership with Operation Lifesaver, stages a car/train crash May 18, 1994.

UPDATE: Operation Lifesaver's Jane Mosley responds to the October 1995 school bus rail crossing tragedy in this letter to the media

Marketing Safety

Maybe you saw it on CNN the night of May 18: three crash dummies met a messy death in rural North Carolina as a GP-38 towing four covered hopper cars rammed into the side of their '89 Olds.

With a sickening crunch, the Aberdeen Carolina & Western locomotive tossed the car in the air, hitting the ill-fated vehicle a second time before pushing it sideways down the track about 500 feet.

This was a test. It was staged by Operation Lifesaver and the Aberdeen Carolina & Western in cooperation with CSX and Norfolk Southern (who supplied the cars), and half a dozen state agencies and programs.

Usually I'm busy helping this railroad market transportation services. On this day I was helping market railroad safety. As good business people and as good corporate neighbors, we can't afford to do any less. And, while our involvement in this staged crash didn't make the railroad any money, it will pay for itself (and help us all sleep easier) if it helps cut down on car/locomotive collisions.

"This is the only Operation Lifesaver event in the nation to stage a real crash between a train and a car," said Jane H. Mosely, state coordinator, North Carolina Operation Lifesaver. The crash site, in Glendon, Moore County, North Carolina, is typical of many railway crossings in the state -- no flashing lights, no guard rails, just railroad crossing signs. "When the people of North Carolina see first-hand what happens when a train and car collide, it will have a tremendous impact on highway safety," predicted Joe Parker, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Program.

When the crumpled Oldsmobile came to a stop and the emergency medical people got to the crash dummies, the grim results of a train/car collision were graphically evident. One crash dummy had been decapitated. A second was crushed. The third, a child dummy in a car seat, had been thrown all over the inside of the vehicle. EMS staff pronounced all three "dead" on the scene.

The point was not lost on the hundreds of spectators who'd come to view the train crash. "It was really frightening," said Mary Garner, who watched with her grandchildren. "A lot of people don't think about things like this. It's real scary, knowing that could be one of your family members." Echoes Allison Whitfield, 11, "I would hate to get hit by a train. I'll remember this. I'll probably tell my mom to be careful and watch when she crosses the tracks."

With the demonstration of the might of a locomotive fresh in their minds, spectators were ready to "buy" the message of the demonstration: watch out for the trains. And the "safety salesmen" were ready. Operation Lifesaver representatives were on hand with the sobering statistics: a 150-car freight train traveling at 50 miles per hour takes 1-1/2 miles to stop...a train's large mass makes it almost impossible to estimate train speed or distance...a car/train accident occurs at the average rate of one every ninety minutes nationwide...motorists in car/train accidents are 30 times as likely to die as in any other kind of accident.

Perhaps more importantly, the message was sent out -- loud and clear -- that the responsibility for avoiding a car/train collision rests squarely with the motorist. "Get out of your vehicle if it stalls...expect a train on any track at any time...only proceed through a crossing if you are sure you can cross the entire track," advised the Moore County Citizen News-Record in front page coverage. Another paper quoted Terry Feichtenbiner, who ran the "crash dummy" train: "The fact that a crossing doesn't have flashers and gate doesn't make it unsafe. It's in the hands of the car driver. The train can't swerve out of the way."

In addition, the train and its engineer were shown as concerned corporate citizens, committed to the safety and well-being of their neighbors. It's a welcome change to see the railroad and its employees portrayed as a public safety advocates. Local officials and businesses were quick to see the continuing education value of the demonstration. "I think we should get the videos [made by CNN and other stations] duplicated and put them in all the schools for their driver's education programs," suggests Moore County Commissioner Malcolm Owings. "It would be very worthwhile." The educational value of the event, and the video coverage, was not lost on the local electric company either: two days after the crash, they called the railroad to arrange a crossing safety lecture for their crews.

Because of the CNN coverage, our railroad's contribution to railroad safety awareness had coast-to-coast impact. A family member, traveling to a health care meeting in California in early June, overheard some health care professionals from San Diego discussing the CNN broadcast. Closer to home, the event brought together the "Four Cs" of short line marketing: Customers, Class Is, Communities, and Coworkers. All were involved, as participants or spectators, in an event that reaffirmed our communities' commitment to the safety of its citizens.

Because of CNN's coverage, too, we have compelling videotape footage to use as an ongoing tool to help us "market" safety in our own community in lectures and presentations for corporations, civic organizations, and schools.

Sadly, it appears we'll need it. The very day after the staged crash, folks were driving around the crossing gates in downtown Aberdeen.

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Created July 31, 1995. Send comments to lblanchard@aol.com