• Otter Views: Distractions

    According to a recent news story out of Marysville, CA, a freight train overtook and struck a young couple walking on the tracks. The boy died at the scene; the girl was airlifted in critical condition to a hospital. The teenagers reportedly were walking to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance at about 7 p.m. when the accident occurred.

    Details were sketchy, but visibility seems not to have been a factor. Spectators watching a Little League game at a nearby field reported hearing several long blasts of the train’s horn before the collision. The train engineer told police he saw the couple up ahead, hit the brakes and sounded the horn repeatedly, but they didn’t turn around until the train was on them.

    The incident faded quickly as the media moved on to more dire tragedies – a mudslide in Washington, the Malaysian Air crash in the Indian Ocean, an ebola outbreak in West Africa. Yet the Marysville accident is an anomaly I can’t quite resolve. To see if anyone else had a similar take, I mentioned the story to a friend who hadn’t heard it.

    After listening to my summary, he said: “How did they not know a train was coming up behind them?”

    I shrugged and raised my hands. “I have no idea. According to the reports I’ve read, it wasn’t dark, they were not hearing-impaired, and the train horn sounded several times before impact. It’s a mystery.”

    A surf through various websites found potential scapegoats but few answers. Union Pacific was blamed for not fencing off tracks near the school and ball field. The young couple was faulted for “trespassing” on the railroad’s property. Townspeople blamed themselves for allowing their kids to consider the tracks an unofficial bikeway and walkway. And so on.

    The social media trawl that usually follows high school tragedies may yield clues to a previously unsuspected suicide pact, but that seems unlikely. The couple had been dating for a year, were on their way to a dance, and were termed “sweethearts” by friends and family members. That they were walking in the same direction the train was traveling also suggests an unintentional collision.

    On the other hand, they were reportedly walking along the tracks, rather than on the adjacent stone and gravel levee. If I knew more about trains and tracks, this might make sense, but I’ve had little experience with railroads. Perhaps the footing is better along tracks and ties than on uneven levee stones. Either that, or the tracks appeal to some elemental pedestrian instinct for risk and danger.

    I’m baffled. If, as seems likely, the young couple were enjoying a scenic evening walk along the tracks on their way to a dance, why didn’t they step to safety when the train came blaring up behind them? The only clue so far was a suggestion in print media follow-ups that “investigators are looking into whether the pair was distracted by headphones or something else when the accident occurred.”

    That would be some distraction. Yet having taught high school, I can somewhat credit that line of inquiry. Students using headphones or ear buds often had the volume up so high their music could be heard by passersby. If both ears were engaged, even a train horn might be inaudible over the seductive thunder of one’s playlist.

    Where there are ear buds, there is usually a handheld. And where there is a handheld, distraction is implicit. You don’t need to go to Marysville to verify that. Stand on any city corner for a few minutes, and you’ll see motorists texting while they drive; pedestrians checking messages while crossing the street; families in restaurants transfixed by their cell phones.

    So maybe there’s something in that. When combined, the hypnotic allure of the hand-held screen and the thunderous interior soundtrack of the ear buds might cancel out an approaching train. Of course, it’s equally possible the engineer was also texting and wired into headphones. Numerous train, bus, boat and subway crashes have resulted from “driver inattention” linked to handhelds.

    There’s no moral to be drawn from any of this. It’s the way we live now, and it’s not likely to roll back. If anything, Google Glass and other new personal communication gizmos may further limit awareness of one’s surroundings. When everyone can watch video on their glasses, forget eye contact in traffic.

    If the Marysville sweethearts were found to have been plugged in and electronically distracted, their tragedy becomes more plausible. Young, in love, their heads together over some shared message or music, they might not have sensed the train racketing up behind them. And if the engineer saw them up ahead, hit the horn and the brakes as reported, then the accident becomes not just a collision of bodies, but of paradigms.

    The new paradigm offers exquisitely portable entertainment, illusion, diversion and shared expression. But on the train tracks and roadbeds of the old paradigm, the laws of physics still prevail.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 28, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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