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Could the LA Train Crash Been Caused by a Cell Phone?

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Los Angeles, CAThe last words of the engineer piloting the doomed Metrolink train in the LA train crash Friday could be found as a text message on a cell phone.

Did a potential distraction from either reading, or sending a text message cause the crash? Time will tell. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says it could take months to arrive at a conclusive cause for the crash that killed 25 people and injured more than 130. The union representing deceased engineer Robert Sanchez maintains that Sanchez was conscientious, and would often be the first to complain about broken signal flags along his route.

Text Message"He has been proactive about calling attention to things," said Ted Smith, the State Chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, in comments appearing in the New York Times. "He was known as one of the better engineers for Metrolink."

That said, the media is crawling all over reports that Sanchez was carrying on with an exchange of text messages with two Los Angeles-area boys described as railroad buffs, and who Sanchez had befriended. The last text message from the engineer to the boys arrived at about a minute before the fateful crash, when the Metrolink commuter train slammed head-on into a freight train coming the other way, on the same track.

Early in the weekend, officials at Metrolink released a statement claiming that Sanchez had run through a red light, signaling that the track ahead was not safe to enter. The NTSB, meanwhile, cautions that it is way too early to jump to any conclusion. The signal, for example, may have malfunctioned. The train also, it is reported, barreled through a mechanical switch that would have ordinarily diverted the train to another track. The assumption, however, is that because the train did not slow as the result of a red signal, the switch failed.

Investigators also want to determine if Positive Train Control (PTC), a high-tech crash avoidance system that is used in other parts of the country but not in Los Angeles, might have prevented the worst train accident in the US in at least 15 years. The NTSB has long pressed for PTC for all trains, but many operators have balked at the cost, and a reported tendency to be unreliable.

While Metrolink appeared over the weekend to be blaming the accident on the missed red light, the NTSB is looking at all possible causes. It was noted the duty dispatcher stationed in the Metrolink control center was not aware that the passenger train had run the red light, but reported noticing some kind of abnormality with the signals right around the time of the accident. According to an NTSB spokesperson, the dispatcher was about to contact the train when he received the report from the doomed train's conductor that the accident happened.

Investigators also point out that while it appears the engineer had, indeed been using the text function of his cell phone in the minutes leading up to the crash, the phone itself has yet to be found.

While the investigation continues, the families of those killed together with the injured passengers will be watching closely from the sidelines, especially with a view that the crash might have been prevented if the signals were functioning properly, or had Metrolink installed PTC as a failsafe, or had the engineer not been using the texting feature on his cell phone.

The latter issue has represented a growing concern amongst safety advocates. While text messaging can be a more efficient mode of communication than speaking, it commands a user's total attention while reading, or composing. Even users adept with the keypad, will glance at the screen often to ensure the correct message appears, and that rogue characters or extra letters have not been inadvertently placed due to the inherent functionality of the numeric keypad. Law enforcement officers have become increasingly concerned with motorists receiving, and sending text messages while driving. Talking into a cell phone, even a hands-free unit, has been deemed a dangerous distraction while driving, even with all eyes on the road. Researchers have recently concluded that it detracts from a driver's focus and reflexes, and diminishes the capacity for crash avoidance.

Text messaging simply compounds that distraction.

It is yet to be determined if the signal was, indeed lit red, but the engineer did not see the light because he was using the text messaging feature of his cell phone. It also has yet to be determined whether, or not the signal was lit at all. Green would signal a clear track ahead, while red would signal danger. If the signal was devoid of any light at all, an engineer completely focused on the task at hand might have suspected a malfunction, and reacted accordingly.

Critics will point out that regardless of the cause, the engineer should not have been using his cell phone for personal, even recreational reasons, on company time—while on duty, in the driver's seat and responsible for the safety of hundreds of commuters. And the appearance of using text functionality while in control of a moving vehicle, some would call unforgivable.

The investigation continues, which the NTSB says could take several months.

The families of those killed, and injured will be waiting for that report—as will their lawyers…


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