Monday, 14 February 2011

An Avoidable Tragedy

There's a story on the front page of today's Times newspaper, repeated in other outlets today, which details the tragic deaths of two teenage girls on a level crossing in 2005, and their families' demands for a new inquiry into their deaths.

13 year old Charlotte Thompson and her 14 year old friend Olivia Bazlinton were killed instantly when they were struck by a train at the unmanned crossing in Essex in December that year. Their families remain traumatised by their bereavement, and the photographs shown of the girls smiling and joyful, makes their premature deaths all the more poignant.

The Times goes into detail about claims that a risk assessment on the crossing was withheld from the inquest, and claims that had risk assessments been more accurate, and locking gates been fitted to the crossing, the girls' deaths would have been prevented. The conclusion The Times reaches: their deaths were entirely avoidable.

But The Times studiously omits what I think is the most relevant factor in the whole case (and in doing so speaks volumes to me about the way society has changed from an ethos of personal responsibility, to one of dishing out blame).

I had to go back to this 2007 report from the Guardian before I could find the relevant information. It is a report of the inquest. Now before we get to it, let's be clear, locking gates would undoubtedly have been more secure. I wish very much that Charlotte and Olivia were still alive today.
But the train did not chase the girls across the pavement and down the street. As The Guardian report reveals, the two girls - tragically - had ignored the flashing red lights and sirens on the crossing, and had made a ill-fated dash for it.

Instead of blaming the lack of locking gates for the girls' deaths, the terrible reality is that they themselves diced with death and lost the gamble. Charlotte and Olivia certainly knew what the sirens meant, they knew the red lights meant 'do not cross', but they did it anyway.

I know there are various behavioural experts who will likely explain that teenage brains do not have an adult's capacity to appreciate the concept of mortality, but the reality is that children who use level crossings must be told, and told again: familiarity with a crossing must not breed contempt or complacency toward it, warning lights and sirens cannot be ignored, it's just not worth taking the risk.

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