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Injuries Among Railroad Trespassers -- Georgia, 1990-1996

Railroad trespassers are persons on railroad property whose presence is prohibited or unlawful. Most trespassers are walking along or across railroad tracks (1). In 1997, fatalities to railroad trespassers became the leading cause of railroad-related deaths in the United States (2) (Figure 1). In 1998, 513 persons were injured and 536 persons were killed while trespassing (Federal Railroad Administration, unpublished data, 1999). This report presents three incidents in which trespassers were injured or killed and summarizes a study of fatal and nonfatal injuries to railroad trespassers in Georgia from 1990 through 1996.

Case Reports

Case 1. In April 1991, a 20-year-old man and 19-year-old woman were killed at approximately 11:40 p.m. when caught between two freight trains traveling in opposite directions. He and his companion were watching a northbound train when they were sideswiped by a southbound train on adjacent tracks. The man reportedly had previously walked along the tracks at night. Both deceased persons tested positive for alcohol, marijuana, and codeine.

Case 2. In July 1995, a 42-year-old man suffered superficial abrasions when he was struck at approximately 1 p.m. while attempting to cross in front of a freight train traveling at 10 mph. The man had been found trespassing and intoxicated 3 days before the incident and given a warning. Toxicology results were not available for the day of the injury, but police reported he smelled of alcohol and had slurred speech.

Case 3. In January 1996 at approximately 8 a.m., a 38-year-old man died when struck by a passenger train traveling at 64 mph. As he crossed the tracks on his way to work, he apparently did not see the train approaching behind him and did not respond to the train's horn until just before he was hit. Toxicology results were negative.

Study Results

In accordance with the reporting practices of the Federal Railroad Administration (3), an injury to a railroad trespasser was defined as the unintentional injury of any person whose presence on railroad property was prohibited by law in Georgia during 1990-1996. Data on trespasser injuries were provided by the 17 railroad companies operating in the state. Additional information was obtained from the state medical examiner, county medical examiners and coroners, the Georgia Center for Health Information, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Railroad Administration, and newspaper reports. Railroad data included only incidents involving trains; data from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, the only subway system in the state, were excluded. If multiple specimens from a fatally injured person were tested for alcohol concentration, the lowest value obtained from blood was used for data analysis. If a blood sample was not obtained, the alcohol concentration of another body fluid (e.g., vitreous humor) was used. A positive test was defined as an alcohol concentration greater than zero; intoxication was defined as greater than or equal to 100 mg/dL of alcohol. Denominators vary for some categories because of missing data.

During 1990-1996, 276 incidents involving 288 trespassers were reported by five railroads in Georgia. Trespasser injuries were reported by Norfolk Southern (58%), CSX (41%), Amtrak (1%), Georgia Northeastern (less than 1%), and Georgia Southwestern (less than 1%). Thirty-seven to 48 trespassers were injured each year (Figure 2). Of the 288 injured trespassers, 132 (46%) died from their injuries (mean: 19 deaths per year). The median age of injured trespassers was 31 years (range: 1-92 years); 11% were children (aged less than 18 years) and 5% were elderly (aged greater than or equal to 65 years). Most (71%) trespassers were aged 20-49 years; 88% were male. Fifty-six percent of trespassers were injured during March-August; 51% were injured on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Fifty-nine percent of trespassers were injured during 6 p.m.-6 a.m. Most of the trespassers were injured in the city (60%) or county (73%) where they resided.

Incidents occurred in 65 counties in the state; 40% of injuries occurred in five counties (Fulton County, 50 trespasser injuries; Cobb County, 27; Muscogee County, 15; DeKalb County, 13; and Richmond County, nine). These five counties are part of three of the five largest metropolitan areas in the state and accounted for 32% of the 1990 population of the 144 Georgia counties with railroad lines.

Toxicology results were available for 78 (59%) of the 132 fatalities. Of these, 43 (55%) were positive for alcohol, including 40 (51%) who had alcohol levels greater than 100 mg/dL. The median alcohol level among those who tested positive was 220 mg/dL (range: five-460 mg/dL). Fourteen persons, seven of whom had also consumed alcohol, tested positive for at least one other substance (marijuana, seven; cocaine, five; codeine, two; amphetamines, one; and LSD, one).

Reported by: J Glasgow, Georgia Operation Lifesaver, Atlanta, Georgia. J Farrell, Georgia Dept of Human Resources. WS Roberts, G Herrin, Georgia Bur of Investigation. R Finkelstein, B George, Federal Railroad Administration. Div of Unintentional Injuries Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; State Br, Div of Applied Public Health Training, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Editorial Note:

The findings of this report support those of previous studies that found most injuries to railroad trespassers involved men aged 20-49 years, many of whom were intoxicated (1,4-10). Few trespassers were attempting to use trains for transportation; most trespassers were either walking or socializing near the tracks at the time of injury. In many incidents, trespassers apparently did not hear the train horn or misjudged the speed or location of the train; this last problem appears to be more common when a train is approaching on one of multiple parallel sets of tracks (1,7). The apparent clustering of injuries in certain counties was largely explained by population size and degree of urbanization. The large percentage of injuries involving CSX and Norfolk Southern trains is a reflection of the size of their operations in the state; they are the largest railroads operating in Georgia. Except for Amtrak, the other railroad companies in the state are short-line railroads that account for relatively few train-miles.

Although the number of deaths from motor-vehicle collisions with trains at highway rail crossings has decreased, deaths among trespassers have increased. The decline in deaths at highway rail crossings probably resulted from multiple factors such as education efforts (e.g., Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide public education program designed to eliminate collisions, injuries, and deaths at highway rail intersections and on railroad rights-of-way) and engineering changes (e.g., installation of active warning systems and closure of redundant crossings). Efforts to prevent trespasser deaths have received less attention, and the target audience (adult males who abuse alcohol) may be difficult to reach.

The findings in this report are subject to at least three limitations. First, death investigation practices vary among the 159 counties in Georgia, and information maintained by the railroads on nonfatal injuries is limited. Second, toxicology results were not available for many persons who died and for all persons with nonfatal injuries. It is unknown whether the toxicology results of those fatalities that were tested are generalizable to all fatalities or to nonfatal injuries. Finally, some trespasser injuries reported by railroads were misclassified as to intent. For example, although injuries reported by railroads are considered unintentional by definition, the county medical examiner or coroner classified nine of the trespasser deaths as suicides and one as a homicide.

To monitor injuries to railroad trespassers accurately, better data are needed (1,10). In 1997, the Federal Railroad Administration introduced a redesigned data collection form for trespasser injuries. The form (FRA F6180.55a) should be evaluated to determine whether the new data elements provide the information necessary to characterize injuries to trespassers adequately. Further research is needed in other geographic regions of the United States; patterns described in the southeast (1,4-6) may not reflect the situation in other parts of the country, such as border states where trespassing may be related to illegal immigration. Additional research also is needed to determine the impact of altering certain aspects of railroad design and operation (e.g., fencing and speed limits). Efforts to educate the public about the dangers of trespassing, improve enforcement of existing laws, and prevent alcohol abuse should continue (1).


  1. Pelletier AR. Deaths among railroad trespassers: the role of alcohol in fatal injuries. JAMA 1997;277:1064-6.
  2. US Department of Transportation. Railroad safety statistics: annual reports, 1997. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, September 1998.
  3. Federal Railroad Administration. FRA guide for preparing accident/incident reports. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, 1996.
  4. Moore TJ, Wilson JR, Hartman M. Train versus pedestrian accidents. Southern Med J 1991;84:1097-8,1102.
  5. Cina SJ, Koelpin JL, Nichols CA, Conradi SE. A decade of train-pedestrian fatalities: the Charleston experience. J Forensic Sci 1994;39:668-73.
  6. Davis GG, Bruce AC, Brissie RM. A 15-year review of railway-related deaths in Jefferson County, Alabama. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1997;18:363-8.
  7. National Transportation Safety Board. Safety recommendation R-78-42. Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 1978.
  8. Spaite D, Criss E, Valenzuela T, Meislin HW, Odgen JR. Railroad accidents: a metropolitan experience of death and injury. Ann Emerg Med 1988;17:620-5.
  9. Shapiro MJ, Luchtefeld WB, Durham RM, Mazuski JE. Traumatic train injuries. Am J Emerg Med 1994;12:92-3.
  10. Lerer LB, Matzopoulos RG. Fatal railway injuries in Cape Town, South Africa. American J Forensic Med Pathol 1997;18:144-7.

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