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Operation Lifesaver awards rail safety awareness volunteers

The non-profit teaches professional drivers how to safely navigate rail crossings

Operation Lifesaver educates drivers on railroad safety. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Operation Lifesaver, the largest rail safety organization in the United States, has named Debra Ashworth of Grand Island, Nebraska and the late Delmar Kittendorf of Marietta, Georgia receipts of the F. Tom Roberts Memorial Volunteer Award for their volunteer outreach efforts.

The award, named after a past volunteer and board member of the safety organization, honors volunteers who have demonstrated outstanding dedication through substantial hours of service and creating engaging events that help drive awareness to the group’s cause.

“Tom admired the volunteers on the grassroots level and how they took our message out to the public,” said Janice Cowen, the state coordinator of the South Carolina chapter, in an interview with FreightWaves. “He was a wonderful person, kind hearted and always had a joke to tell you anytime you saw him. He was a part of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and served on the Operation Lifesaver board of directors for many years.”

Operation Lifesaver was founded in the 1970s by Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) and is committed to educating the public on railroad safety in efforts to prevent collisions, injuries and fatalities that occur on and around railroad tracks and crossings. 

“Every three hours in the United States, a person or vehicle is hit by a train,” said Jennifer DeAngelis, the director of communications and marketing for the nonprofit group. “It’s a staggering statistic and we are constantly trying to share the rail safety message and empower people to make safe choices around railroad tracks and trains. Whether you are driving through a crossing or you are walking into your neighborhood and you come across railroad tracks, we want folks to be empowered with safety information.”

DeAngelis explained that a train traveling over 55 miles per hour takes over a mile to stop, about 18 football fields of space.

“People think they can beat a train,” she said. “You can’t and should not do that. It is not a safe or smart choice to make.”

Cowen backed up DeAngelis’ concerns by explaining the limitations of a train.

“These trains weigh four thousand times what your average car weighs,” she said. “They have no steering wheel and they can’t swerve to avoid something that’s in front of them. This is why we tell drivers, pedestrians and cyclists to look and listen for that train on the track.”

Tips for professional drivers 

Operation Lifesaver visits numerous professional driving schools and trucking companies every year to educate drivers on how to maneuver around railroad crossings and what to do if your truck gets stuck on the tracks.

Quick tips provided by the company include:

  • Always consider the 15-50 rule. Stop between 15 and 50 feet before the nearest rail of the crossing.
  • If it won’t fit, don’t commit. Know the length of your truck and do not proceed unless you can fully clear the crossing.
  • In case of emergency, get out of the truck and find the blue sign. Railroad crossings now have blue “Emergency Notification System” signs located at the signal post. The crossing number will help local police and emergency services locate you.

DeAngelis and Cowen agreed the most important rule is to always expect a train.

“A train can come any day of the year, 24 hours a day,” said Cowen. “You need to be aware of where you are and make sure when you’re crossing, whether you are in a car or bicycle or on foot, that you understand you should always expect the train.”

For more information on volunteering with the organization, you can visit their website at

Click here for more articles by Grace Sharkey.

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Grace Sharkey

Grace Sharkey is a professional in the logistics and transportation industry with experience in journalism, digital content creation and decision-making roles in the third-party logistics space. Prior to joining FreightWaves, Grace led a startup brokerage to more than $80 million in revenue, holding roles of increasing responsibility, including director of sales, vice president of business development and chief strategy officer. She is currently a staff writer, podcast producer and SiriusXM radio host for FreightWaves, a leading provider of news, data and analytics for the logistics industry. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Michigan State University. You can contact her at [email protected].