Illinois bill calls for harsher rail crossing violations

| 3/21/2002

National Transportation Safety Board Photo

Motorists and truckers who intentionally disregard railroad crossing warning devices and cause fatal crashes would face increased prison time under legislation passed in the Illinois state House this month.

The Herald News of suburban Chicago reports that six Republicans sponsored the bill. The legislators said they want to raise awareness about safety at railroad crossings in the wake of the March 15, 1999, collision involving trucker John R. Stokes and Amtrak's City of New Orleans train. The accident resulted in 11 deaths and 122 injuries.

Stokes is awaiting trial on charges of driving longer than permitted without sleep in a 24-hour period and for not updating his driver's log. On Feb. 1, 2002, state and local investigators said in a report the crossing gates malfunctioned. Stokes did not try to drive around lowered crossing signals, the report concluded.

However, a Feb 5., 2002, National Traffic Safety Board report said the collision's probable cause was Stokes' "inappropriate response to the crossing warning devices and his judgment, likely impaired by fatigue, that he could cross the tracks before the arrival of the train."

The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, would increase the penalty for reckless conduct that causes a death when a car or truck collides with a train. Instead of a Class 3 felony, which carries a penalty ranging from probation to five years, the conduct would be a Class 2 felony, with a penalty of up to seven years.

Because Illinois classifies logbook and hours-of-service violations as Class 4 felonies, Stokes faces a possible sentence of one to three years in prison for each count.