BLOOMDALE, Ohio - The forest-green pickup truck slowed perceptibly as the railroad crossing gates came down ahead of it on State Rt. 18 east of here, but it didn't stop.
Instead, its driver steered around the gates and continued west.
On an ordinary evening, that might have been the end of the story. But yesterday, CSX police Officer Don Egan was watching, and soon after the train whistled past, Officer Egan's white GMC Yukon pulled up behind the green pickup.
Officer Egan was one of six law enforcement personnel who spent a shift yesterday evening staking out crossings along the CSX main line between Fostoria and Deshler. The CSX police, Wood County Sheriff's Office, and Ohio Highway Patrol contributed two men each to the campaign to give a little bite to the grade-crossing safety laws. Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit, nationwide crossing-safety foundation, coordinated the effort. In Ohio, railroad police officers are certified to the same standards as municipal officers and have the same authority.
The line across southern Wood County was chosen for special attention, said Sgt. Raymond Pacheco of the patrol's Walbridge post, because of six car-train crashes that occurred in the area during 2000 and 2001, including a fatal collision in February, 2001, near North Baltimore. Between 1996 and 2001, Wood County had the third most crossing accidents in Ohio - 25.
“If people know we're out there strictly enforcing the railroad crossing laws, hopefully we can save someone's life,'' Sergeant Pacheco said.
Sixteen trains passed through the area during the six-hour crackdown and, according to Ken Gilsdorf, a CSX public safety coordinator, two tickets were issued - both by Officer Egan. A third violation was observed by a state trooper, but the motorist and the trooper ended up being on opposite sides of the train.
Terrence M. Fondessy, 43, of Fostoria, the driver of the pickup, declined to be interviewed while waiting for Officer Egan to issue a citation accusing him of failing to observe a grade-crossing warning device.
The CSX officer said the driver professed to being in a hurry, and claimed that he had “assured clear distance” ahead of the train, which was coming toward him at the angled crossing. While Officer Egan agreed that the truck had not been in grave danger of colliding with the train, he noted that the law forbids motorists from passing a lowered crossing gate under any circumstances. Even when a crossing has lights without warning gates, the law requires a motorist to come to a full stop before making an “assured clear distance” judgment.
The fatal crash Feb. 1, 2001, on Liberty Hi Road in Henry Township was the first of 13 fatal car-train collisions across Ohio last year, seven of which were in the northwestern part of the state. Twenty-one people died in the crashes, including four people in a Crawford County collision on Feb. 3, 2001, and five in a Williams County collision on July 1.
All crossing accident statistics for 2001 have to be compiled. But the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio said 113 crashes occurred statewide between January and November last year, two more than during the first 11 months of 2000. The 2000 12-month total of 140 was 13 more crashes than in 1999.
Authorities are particularly concerned over the rising number of crashes at sites that have active warning devices - flashing lights or lights and gates. Four of the 13 fatality sites last year had lights, including the Crawford County site, and three had lights and gates, including Liberty Hi.