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CURB RAILROAD CROSSING DEATHS

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The number of deaths at railroad crossings is rising, adding to a phenomenon that baffles transportation officials. Most of the accidents happen in broad daylight and good weather. They often involve motorists who try to maneuver around crossing gates or ignore flashing lights.

People either aren't taking the warnings seriously or are too consumed in their own busy schedules to take heed of an approaching train. Perhaps the crossing gates and flashing lights malfunction so much people don't believe them any more.Whatever the reason, the figures are noteworthy. According to the Transportation Department, 626 people died at crossings last year. Another 523 were killed while trespassing along the rails.

As a result, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena wants to shut down as many of the nation's 280,000 railroad crossings as possible. He has announced a program called the Rail-Highway Grade Crossing Safety Act of 1994, a mouthful of legislation aimed at stopping the deaths.

At first blush, Pena's plan sounds like another expensive, bureaucratic overkill. He wants the federal government to pay 100 percent of what it costs to redesign the crossings, and he wants to offer a $7,500 incentive to local governments for each crossing they close outright.

But Pena insists he can find the $15 million for the program from within existing transportation accounts. If that is true, Congress should give its wholehearted approval to the plan.

Utah has had its share of accidents involving trains and cars. One of the most recent happened late last year when two Provo men died after driving around a crossing gate.

Pena could be right. The best way to avoid such accidents may be to keep cars and trains as far apart as possible. The number of accidents and the price of his proposed plan make it worth seriously considering.