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A Matter Of Life And Death

Every 100 minutes in America a train collides with a vehicle or pedestrian.

Last year alone, more than 3,000 rail-crossing collisions killed more than 400 people and seriously injured nearly 2,000 others, CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports. Many of the casualties were people in a hurry.

"We're very impatient, and we just think we've got to beat that train because we don't want to sit behind that gate," says Gerry Hall, of Operation Lifesaver, the railroad industry's campaign against playing death-defying games with trains. "And so 50 percent of the time people are trying to beat the train."

In an average year, more people die in crashes with trains than in commercial airline accidents. Most of the crashes happen within 25 miles of the motoristÂ's home.

One way to prevent this dangerous behavior is being tried at a crossing in Spokane, Washington, reports CBS Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum.

A surveillance camera showed how bad things were: Cars drove around the crossing gates, some missing the train by seconds.

The remedy: a simple barrier that keeps cars in their lanes and prevents them from driving around the gates.

Critics say railroads are partly to blame because of cutbacks in crossing inspections and maintenance. With more freight trains operating than ever, the potential for accidents is bound to be high.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, we do not have advance warning," says Phillip Norris, who has worked for 17 years on locomotives and been involved in a number of collisions. "Your heart seems to go right up in your throat. You have a sense of helplessness. Even as big as these things are, we can't swerve to miss a car."

For many, the stop at the crossing is wasted time. But for hundreds more this year, it will mean the difference between life and death.