Updated 1/4/11 – 3:06 p.m. CHICAGO (WBBM) — Deaths from collisions between trains and vehicles increased last year in Illinois for the first time in more than five years.

The Illinois Commerce Commission reported Tuesday that 10 people died driving in front of trains in Illinois during all of 2009. Last year, through Nov. 30, 17 had died. By contrast, 15 had died in 2008 and 16 in 2007.

As Newsradio 780’s Bob Roberts reports, the ICC statistics show that overall train-vehicle accidents also increased, to 76 through last Sept. 30, compared with 80 in 2009, 129 in 2008 and 130 in 2007.

Men 20-50 years of age account for three-quarters of such accidents, said Chip Pew, the Illinois director of Operation Lifesaver, the railroad industry’s safety arm.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bob Roberts Reports

“We are essentially back where we were in 2008 and 2007,” Pew said.

Despite the increase, Pew said the figures are not as alarming as you may think.

“What we saw in 2009 was train traffic down, vehicle traffic down,” he said. “When you have those two things down you have less exposure and less opportunity for trains and cars to meet at railroad crossings.”

Nonetheless, Operation Lifesaver is beginning the most extensive ad campaign on crossing safety that Pew can remember. Ads will run through the end of March not just on the radio, but on nine Chicago-area television stations and 27 stations downstate.

The message is a simple one — trains can’t stop the way cars do, and those who try beat trains through crossings risk their lives.

The ads were unveiled at a Chicago Union Station news conference, at which Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo (ZAY’-bo) said that motorists who try to race trains to crossings and lose almost inevitably are severely injured or killed.

Szabo, a former Metra commuter train conductor, said the emotional toll is enormous both on those who survive in the vehicle, and on the crews who are usually helpless to stop the train in time.

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