The tragic death of
15-year-old Sierra Thornton, who was killed recently when the vehicle she was driving was struck by a train near South Prospect Street in Ravenna, prompts renewed concern about the apparent safety hazard posed to motorists using the Norfolk Southern crossing there.
A pair of stop signs, with signs identifying the site as a private crossing, are posted along with X-shaped railroad crossbuck signs, but there are no gates, bells or flashing lights to warn motorists of trains. And, according to the Federal Railorad Administration, 62 trains pass through the crossing near Ravenna's southern boundary every day.
Because the crossing is a private one -- the area where it is located is a private road serving a handful of homes off South Prospect Street -- there is no requirement for any of the traditional warning devices that are posted at most railroad crossings. There are 33 such crossings in Portage County.
While there are funds available for installing crossings gates and lights -- as much as 100 percent of the cost, using federal sources -- liability issues provide a disincentive for railroads to improve grade crossings. A railroad has limited liability for accidents at unmarked crossings, but once safety devices have been installed, the railroad is responsible for maintaining it and liable for related accidents.
The accident that killed Sierra Thornton, who had just gotten her learning permit as a new driver, is not the first fatality to have occurred at the South Prospect crossing. Another accident cost the life of a motorist there about 35 years ago.
The South Prospect crossing is a dangerous one for those unfamiliar with it. Sight lines are limited for motorists looking to the north because of a curve about a thousand feet from the crossing. Those familiar with the crossing say that a driver would have roughly 5 to 10 seconds to get out of the way of an oncoming train.
While the Norfolk Southern Railroad may not have a legal responsibility to remedy the safety concerns at the crossing, the death of a 15-year-old driver points to the need to improve conditions there. We hope railroad officials recognize this and assume moral responsibility for the crossing. Maintaining it as it exists, with trains traveling across it more than 60 times each day, is an invitation for another tragedy.