Cary-Grove High School senior Chelsie Tamms says that whenever she drives through train crossings, she's always alert and careful.
For that, the 18-year-old credits her participation in Metra's yearly safety poster contest, which she says has made her more aware of safety issues. She's also conscious of her school's tragic history as it relates to train accidents.
Tuesday will mark the 16th anniversary of the deaths of seven Cary-Grove students killed when their school bus was struck by a Metra express train in Fox River Grove. In 2006, Cary-Grove student Justin Glassmyer, 15, was killed while riding his bike through the same intersection on the anniversary of the tragedy.
"We talk about it a lot when we do the contest," said Chelsie, who last year placed second among all participating 11th-graders. The contest's theme was "Safety First: Look, Listen and Live."
"It's important for our school to participate. A lot of people put effort in getting the message out clearly."
Last year, Metra received more than 5,000 poster entries from students in kindergarten through high school across the region. The contest includes online information about safety in general, and train safety in particular, which can be incorporated by teachers in a lesson plan, Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile said.
Cary-Grove art department chairwoman Wendy Guss said participating in the contest has become part of the culture of graphic arts classes, as students talk about winning posters and come up with their own concepts year after year.
The 1995 tragedy has personal connection for Guss, a Crystal Lake native whose uncle was on that Metra train.
"There is no way to describe it. It was the school's darkest day," she said.
Metra board member Jack Schaffer, a Cary native, said train safety is a personal issue for him as well. Schaffer was in the Fox River Grove Metra parking lot when the crash occurred.
"I did not see it, but I heard it," he said. "It is something that all of us from Cary and Fox River Grove will remember for the rest of our lives."
Schaffer said he is proud of the emphasis Metra has placed on safety, particularly among children.
"We want to get through to younger people that trains and tracks are not something you want to be near."
As for the entries in the poster contest, "I am amazed every year. You expect to have a level of experience from seniors, but some of the younger grades come up with some really great stuff," he said.
In the past decade, an average of 22 people have been killed by Metra trains each year, but about 70 percent of those are suicides, Reile said.
Metra hasn't announced the theme for the 2011-12 contest. First-place winners for each grade receive a laptop computer; second-place winners get a $250 gift card; and third-place winners get a $100 gift card.