Trespass and Young People - how neuroscience affects your commute home
People are always asking about trespass; what trespass is; what we, as a service provider can do to stop it; and most importantly why people, especially young people, do it.
Firstly let’s clarify; trespass can be defined as unauthorised access to the rail reserve. That means anything other than crossing at a designated pedestrian crossing or driving across the tracks at a level crossing. Our train drivers, transit officers and the CCTV operators witness this behaviour on a weekly; sometimes a daily basis and the consequences can be devastating.
To you, the everyday citizen of Perth going about your business, catching the train to and from work and obeying the safety rules, trespass seems outrageous. It is a behaviour that most people would never consider engaging in, certainly not intentionally, because we know in our rational brains that the risks outweigh the benefits. Why then are the incidents of trespass on our network increasing?
One obvious reason is opportunity - here in Perth we have our heritage lines (Armadale, Midland and Fremantle), which not only have stations much closer together, designed for a time when people drove their cars less but also have schools, businesses and homes built up on either side of them. Trespass occurs far more frequently on these lines. A shortcut is one of the most common reasons people trespass. Just jumping that fence and nipping over to the other side seems like an attractive option when you are running late, doesn’t it? Cue our internal voices yelling “NO, DANGER!” instead the vast majority of us wait the extra couple of minutes until the beeping stops, the train has passed and the pedestrian gates open. It is much safer and we are more likely to get to where we are going without losing a limb (or our lives).
We know this.
We, as adults have the handy ability to assess risk quickly. We can look at a situation and our nicely mature pre-frontal cortex kicks into action and we evaluate the risk versus reward and base our decisions on that balance.
Young people aren’t so lucky. Lack of experience and emerging hormones certainly don’t help. Chuck into the mix decision-making based almost entirely on emotion or impulse courtesy of an overdeveloped amygdala and the ability to read the situation and identify the risks goes down considerably. Put simply, young people under the age of 25 are more likely to overestimate the rewards and underestimate the risks of any given situation. They WANT to take risks; they NEED to take risks; their brains are literally screaming at them to do it and without that ability to see the obvious safety concerns and translate that quickly into a rational reason to avoid that particular behaviour, you can see why young people continue to be a significant demographic of trespassers. This is useful historically when young people needed to take risks to provide food for the tribe, for instance, but around trains and train stations, not so much.
Another major factor that comes into play with trespass and risk taking is the mob, or herd mentality. Often trespass is not an individual activity. Sure, it does happen but the majority of trespass in young people will occur in front of peers. Research clearly shows that risk-taking in young people doubles when in the presence of friends. Doubles!
We can blame the amygdala for this one too. When young people know their friends are watching and if they manage to pull off that risky stunt successfully, the signals for reward are increased which flood the brain with happy hormones, providing a feeling of ‘fitting in’ or belonging and further rewarding the behaviour. This is why many young people who regularly engage in trespass on our network cite ‘showing off’ as a reason. When these behaviours are repeated, the pathways in the brain are reinforced and therefore it becomes normal and acceptable behaviour for that person. 99% of the time that young person won’t experience any of the negative consequences we are always trying to make them aware of. They don’t see us watching and recording via CCTV; they don’t see the trauma in the eyes of the train driver who experienced a fatality last year on that same stretch of track and has to relive it as he slams on the emergency brakes; and they certainly don’t see the image of their mum, getting the knock on the door to let her know her only child has just been killed by a train. It’s that 1% of the time when something goes wrong and they suddenly realise that we actually knew what we were talking about all along. By then it’s often too late.
Risk taking behaviour in young people rises again in lower socio-economic groups. This is reflected in our statistics. Those train lines that go through lower socio-economic areas, show a marked increase in trespass behaviours. A combination of other issues such as higher crime rates overall, unsafe home lives leading to a greater street presence, increased rates of alcohol and substance abuse and sometimes a lack of youth services, all contribute to increased trespass in certain areas. Extreme mistrust of authority figures also contributes to this problem. One reason for trespass that comes up often is running over the tracks to escape law enforcement. When talking to young people who engage in trespass on a regular basis it become obvious that this behaviour is just one symptom of a much larger and more complex social issue.
So, how do we address this? What can we do as a rail organisation to keep people safe, deliver effective services and help prevent these kinds of injuries?
That is a very big question and one that has a very long answer.
In the interests of keeping this short and snappy - we do three things:
We build as many safety features into our infrastructure as is possible. We have pedestrian mazes and gates, lighting, barriers and fencing. We are removing the risk by building pedestrian overpasses or grade separating (building a pass over or under a train line) road level crossings including pedestrian crossings where possible.
We have state of the art security and law enforcement such as CCTV cameras, transit officers, court proceedings and infringements. In fact there has recently been legislation introduced which has increased the penalty significantly for those unlawfully accessing the rail network. Those convicted will now be up for a $5000 fine!
And we run youth education programs: we collaborate with multiple youth and community organisations that are also trying to change these behaviours and keep people safe; we offer diversionary programs, designed with young people, in order to draw them away from the rail line and engage them in positive behaviour with strong role models; we roll out various safety campaigns which use comprehensive market research to best target the people engaging in these behaviours; we keep abreast of industry best practice and ensure it plays a part in every approach we take to youth crime and disadvantage; and we listen. We listen to those engaging in the behaviours we are trying to change. And we try to understand what has led them to this point and how we can contribute to preventing this dangerous behaviour in the future.
Ultimately risk-taking is a normal and useful part of every person’s development. The challenge is to provide young people with the opportunities to channel those instincts and impulses into positive risks that help them to learn and grow as individuals. Working together with communities is an effective way of influencing young people and providing them with safer spaces to explore those risks and at the same time limiting the opportunities they might have to take those risks on our rail network.
It’s a long road, but a mighty worthwhile one, don’t you think?
Join us on this journey to keeping young people safe. email: firstname.lastname@example.org