NATIONAL

Preventing suicides on the tracks

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI November 19 2007
NATIONAL

Preventing suicides on the tracks

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI November 19 2007

Preventing suicides on the tracks

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI

Eleven years ago, Transport Canada vowed to tackle an obvious problem: death by railroad track. In 1996 alone, a train collided with a passing vehicle 365 times—an average of once a day. Pedestrian fatalities were also mounting; 126 people were struck by a speeding train. A decade later, after a coordinated campaign of warning signs and public service announcements, the numbers are starting to shrink. In 2005, there were nearly 100 fewer collisions (270), and only 63 cases in which a person died while strolling down a set of tracks.

Still, there is one deadly trend that doesn’t seem to be waning: suicide. Flashing red lights and “No Trespassing” signs may keep the odd jogger away, but not someone bent on ending his life. Preventing suicide requires a completely different strategy—a strategy that Transport Canada is willing to pay for. The department has issued a $348,000 tender for a four-year study that will “develop effective, socially based measures to reduce the incidence of suicides.” The main goal is to identify so-called “hot spots” where the bulk of fatalities occur. Officials can then decide what measures to take, such as erecting barriers, boosting security, or installing “help-line” telephones. (In London, some stations are equipped with “suicide pits.” If a person is hit, he falls into a hole below the tracks—not directly under the train.)

Transport Canada is also weighing the pros and cons of a “media awareness campaign.” It is a sensitive issue. Most news outlets don’t cover suicides, convinced that stories about suicide only trigger more suicides. Brian Mishara, a psychology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, is among those wary of publicity. But he commends the feds for studying the issue. If nothing else, it could make some people think twice about jumping in front of a train. “People believe this is going to produce an immediate, certain, painless death,” he says. “But in reality, people die in agony in hospital, and two-thirds survive. And they are usually severely handicapped if they survive.” M