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Text Messaging May Have Played Role in California Train Crash

September 15, 2008 03:46 PM
by Cara McDonough
Federal investigators seek cell phone records to determine whether text messages could have caused the fatal collision, bringing new attention to driver distraction.

Was California Train Operator Texting?

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The Metrolink engineer, who has not yet been publicly identified, failed to heed a stop signal Friday, causing a train crash that killed him and 24 others. The Metrolink commuter train, originating in Los Angeles and carrying 220 people, crashed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth. More than 130 passengers were injured.

Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday that investigators have been in touch with two teenagers who told a local television station that they had been exchanging text messages with the driver minutes before the collision. One of the teenagers was a train enthusiast who said he had been “talking shop” with the engineer, CNN reports.

Higgins added, however, that the NTSB has not recovered the engineer’s cell phone from the crash site. “I’m not saying there wasn’t a cell phone,” she said, according to CNN. “All I’m saying is that … we were not able to find one.” She said that Metrolink forbids operators from using cell phones or other electronic devices while on duty.

As the investigation continues, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa encouraged residents to continue using trains Monday morning. “I want to dispel any fears about taking the train,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “Safety has to be our number one concern, and while accidents can and do happen, taking the train is still one of the safest and fastest options for commuters.”

The possibility of driver distraction is reminiscent of other deadly crashes in recent years that were blamed on the operators’ impairment, and of campaigns to highlight the dangers of sending text messages while performing other activities.

Background: The collision

The collision Friday was the country’s deadliest rail disaster in 25 years, killing 25 people, the Associated Press reported Sunday. Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said that a preliminary investigation found that “it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal and that was the probable cause” of the crash.

The collision occurred at a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth, a district of Los Angeles, near a 500-foot-long tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, there is an area where one train can wait for another to pass.

“What we believe happened … is we believe that our engineer failed to stop … and that was the cause of the accident,” Tyrrell said, according to the Associated Press reported.

Rescue efforts Friday involved more than 1,000 firefighters, law enforcement personnel, and hospital staff members, as well as other rescue personnel, Fox News Los Angles affiliate Fox 11 reported Sunday in a video segment.

Related Topics: Operator distraction in other major crashes

The accusations that the Metrolink engineer was sending text messages while driving the train highlight the danger of sending text messages or using other electronic devices while driving, or even walking.

In May a public service campaign sponsored by a British telephone directory service called attention to the issue of texting while walking by releasing a comical video of distracted Londoners walking into lampposts. The Illinois state legislature took the issue more seriously earlier this year: in July is was considering a bill to ban pedestrians’ use of cell phones while crossing the street. That same month, a prominent group of emergency-room doctors issued a warning against walking while texting.

In a broader sense, the California train crash also evokes past transportation disasters where operators were found at fault due to impairment.

The March 29, 1989, Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill was blamed on Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the ship, after he was found guilty of operating a vessel while intoxicated. Exxon executives eventually admitted that Hazelwood had been drunk during the accident, and that they had allowed him back on the ship after treatment for his alcoholism. During the spill, the tanker lost 11 million gallons of crude oil, killing 4,500 sea otters and a half a million birds.

Another major collision occurred in October 2003, when New York’s Staten Island Ferry, which brings Staten Island commuters to and from Manhattan via the waterway that separates the two boroughs, crashed into a concrete pier while docking at the St. George Ferry terminal. Eleven people were killed and more than 70 were injured.

The boat’s pilot, Richard Smith, said he had taken the pain medication tramadol as well as Tylenol PM on the day of the crash. Both medications can cause drowsiness. Smith pled guilty in 2004 to 11 counts of violating the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act and one count of submitting a false medical report to the U.S. Coast Guard.
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