Accidents at railroad-highway crossings around the state declined by more than 30 percent from 1982 to 1986, in large part because of a dramatic drop in Prince George's County and Baltimore, according to Maryland Department of Transportation statistics.
Officials from the state and the localities said the decline shows that drivers are more cautious about crossing railroad tracks in front of oncoming trains, perhaps because of increased government efforts to bring attention to the problem. Among those efforts is a yearlong program, Operation Lifesaver, that has just concluded in Prince George's.
"There will always be someone out there who is going to try and beat a train, but for the most part people are stopping at flashing lights and waiting for trains to go by," said Richard Keen, coordinator of the state's railroad administration.
Statistics compiled by the state Department of Transportation show that the state reported 33 accidents at both public and private crossings in 1986, down from 48 in 1982. The state decline reflected a similar drop in national statistics.
Keen said state officials chose Prince George's to test the Operation Lifesaver program because of the county's disproportionately high number of crossing accidents.
"At one point the county had 17 percent of all the grade crossing accidents in the state, yet it only has 5 percent of the state's crossings," said Robert J. Hirstein of the Maryland Highway Administration.
Prince George's with 47 public crossings and Baltimore City with 185 public crossings were each responsible for 40 of the state's 186 railroad accidents between 1982 and 1986.
Although Prince George's officials said they still do not have final figures for the accident rates last year, they applauded the safety program, which included improved street lighting, signs and pavement markings at crossings, as well as appearances by police officers at schools and civic groups to discuss the problem.
"It's too early to tell whether this will mean less accidents, but we notice that more drivers are stopping at flashing lights and and obeying other crossings signs," said P. Michael Errico, deputy director of the Prince George's Department of Public Works.
Charles Snyder of Brandywine, who three years ago spoke out against the frequency with which crossing accidents were occurring in his neighborhood, said he is pleased with the county and state's efforts.
But Snyder said he still finds fault with major train companies such as Conrail for not maintaining proper lighting and signs at their crossings. At a Conrail crossing at Rte. 381 in Brandywine, an Oxon Hill man was critically injured three years ago after his car slammed into a Conrail train. Police said the dark night and improper lighting contributed to the accident.
"It shouldn't be just the state and county's responsibility, but what the county has done is helping," Snyder said.
Accidents in Prince George's at public crossings declined from 10 in 1985 to four in 1986; there were three in the first eight months of 1987. In Baltimore, accidents at public crossings are down from eight in 1985 to five in 1986.
Still, the numbers are significantly higher than each of the jurisdiction's neighboring counties. Montgomery County, which has 16 public crossings, had 11 accidents from 1982 through 1986; Howard County, with seven public crossings, had six accidents in the four-year period; and Anne Arundel County, with 28 public crossings, had three accidents during that time.
Kathleen E. Curtis, spokeswoman for the state transportation department, said that despite the decline in crossing accidents, the number of deaths in the accidents continues to rise.
"No matter how many signs we put up or how many flashing lights there are, there are some people who will attempt to outdrive the train," Curtis said.
Such was the case in Montgomery County in November when a car was struck by a commuter train when the driver tried to drive through a flashing light between Ridge Road and Oakmont Street. Two weeks later, a car collided with a freight train at the same intersection after the driver passed several cars waiting at a gate and tried to cross the tracks. Both drivers survived and were cited for failure to stop at a railroad crossing.
Prince George's officials said that although Operation Lifesaver was a yearlong program, they will continue to educate the public and update aging warnings at crossings.
"Our main objective was to get across what kinds of damage trains can do if you don't obey the warnings," said Mark Wright, a spokesman for the county police.
Curtis said state officials plan to introduce the program in another jurisdiction this year.