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
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