Freight Train Suicides Spark Prevention Measures: From the Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology

By Otto, M. Alexander | Clinical Psychiatry News, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Freight Train Suicides Spark Prevention Measures: From the Annual Conference of the American Association of Suicidology


Otto, M. Alexander, Clinical Psychiatry News


PORTLAND, ORE. - People who kill themselves by freight train are similar to others who commit suicide in other ways, but perhaps suffer more severe mental illness, social isolation, and poverty, according to psychological autopsies conducted on 62 recent freight train suicides.

But they have a handful of unique features, too, according to the autopsies, which were conducted by the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) for the Railroad Research Foundation, an industry group that supplied data from eight major freight lines that was gathered from June 2007 through September 2010. The foundation is using the findings to develop prevention measures.

Not uncommonly, the subjects were spotted wandering the tracks or looking up train schedules before their suicides, and they often lived near the tracks - 47 (76%) within 1 mile, 53 (86%) within 2 miles.

Many had spent time around railroads during their lives, and some had known friends or relatives who had committed suicide by train, or at least had heard of others doing so. There were some copycat suicides among the 62. "Some had a very significant focus on trains as kids," but it's impossible to say if that focus was more common than in other children, said principal investigator and clinical psychologist Alan L. Berman, Ph.D., executive director of the AAS.

Perhaps about 350 people kill themselves by railroad in the United States each year, three-quarters of them using freight lines, the rest passenger lines. The exact number is unknown, because rail companies are not required to report suicides, said the project's research director Dr. Ramya Sun-dararaman, a public health physician with the association.

Even after adjustment for population and amount of track, California, New York, Florida, and Illinois had the most rail suicides, according to an analysis of recent cases. Most of those who commit suicide were aged 35-55 years. Men accounted for about three-quarters, a proportion that is similar to suicide in general.

Most of the 62 autopsied deaths happened on the fringes of cities or suburbs, where fences did not block track access. Just two people drove their cars onto the tracks. The rest were on foot. Suicides occurred in both day and night.

Rail companies "want [the problem] to go away," Dr. Sundararaman said. Each hour of delay costs up to $10,000, and people sometimes opt not to come back to work on a train that has killed someone, she said.

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