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SALT LAKE CITY — Crossing railroad tracks can be risky.
That's why law enforcement agencies — including Utah Transit Authority and Union Pacific police — staked out high-traffic railroad crossings across Utah Tuesday morning to educate pedestrians and drivers on train safety.
Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization, brought the groups together for "Operation Clear Track," part of its annual Rail Safety Week.
According to Utah Highway Patrol trooper Mason Haycock, pedestrians and drivers who improperly cross railroad tracks could lose a limb — or their life.
During Tuesday's operation, police stood next to a Union Pacific and UTA FrontRunner crossing on 300 North near 500 West and talked to drivers when they stopped for trains.
And at 2100 South, near Central Pointe Station, UTA officers did the same.
Haycock and other officers said the most common problem is drivers crossing when the gates go up but the red lights are still flashing. Even when the gates go up, they may come immediately back down, damaging both the car and the gate.
"As soon as the red lights start flashing," Haycock said, "it becomes a stop sign."
In fact, Haycock added, on Monday afternoon an inattentive driver on Redwood Road hit the side of a passing TRAX train around 8100 South.
The driver luckily suffered no major injuries, Haycock said, but that is not always the case.
A cyclist was killed by a FrontRunner train July 19 when he and fellow riders in a large group crossed train tracks despite the gates being closed and lights flashing.
There are very few deaths each year in Utah, Haycock said, but a lot of injuries and minor collisions.
"We have tons of collisions, especially in light rail downtown," he said.
Haycock said most vehicle-train collisions in Salt Lake City occur downtown at low speeds when cars get in the way of TRAX trains.
According to Operation Lifesaver, only eight collisions occurred on Utah highway-rail crossings in 2017, which does not include TRAX. Two resulted in fatalities.
Police also face pedestrian challenges around railroads. Sometimes, Haycock said, long freight trains will stop and block the 300 North crossing, and pedestrians will become impatient and climb between rail cars.
UTA officers said they see a lot of people crossing TRAX tracks in undesignated areas, which can result in a $100 fine.
Haycock emphasized, however, that the main focus is preventing injuries and fatalities.
Lt. Brent Nay, of Union Pacific police, urged caution around railroad tracks — even when there are no lights or gates.
"Wherever you see train tracks, assume a train is going to be there," he said.
Haycock called Operation Lifesaver overall a success.
According to its website, when Operation Lifesaver began in 1972 there were about 12,000 highway-rail crossing collisions annually. But in 2017, there were just over 2,000. Of those, 247 resulted in death.
Haycock urges drivers to never attempt to "beat the train" when the red lights begin to flash.
"If you're a second too slow, it's game over," he said.