Saying goodbye to OL’s National Director Sarah Mayes

A new year is an opportunity for new beginnings—and 2024 will see some major changes at Operation Lifesaver (OL) Canada. After seven years as OL’s National Director, Sarah Mayes will be leaving the organization at the end of 2023.
Sarah started as OL’s interim National Director in 2016, after serving two years as Director of Public Affairs for the Railway Association of Canada (RAC). She took on the role permanently shortly thereafter—and has been putting her mark on the organization ever since.
Over the years, she has been the driving force behind innovative and impactful campaigns such as #STOPTrackTragedies, Today Is Better, and Stay Safe with Thomas, just to name a few.
Before she bids goodbye to OL, she shared her thoughts about her tenure and her advice for her successor. Here is part of that conversation.
When you look back at the last seven years, what do you feel have been OL’s biggest accomplishments?

I think probably our Today is Better campaign, because prior to my joining OL, the organization was mostly focused on preventing accidental crossing and trespassing incidents. Only a few of our rail partners were actively working to prevent suicides—even though they represent about 40% of fatalities on railway tracks. Fortunately, there’s been a recognition of the importance of mental health in recent years, and people are realizing that multi-sectoral approaches are a way that we can tackle challenging societal problems, like suicide. I think the fact that the our rail partners put their funding and support behind OL developing a suicide-prevention campaign is something that we can all be really proud of.

I'm also really pleased with the partnerships that we’ve cultivated over the years, like our collaborations with Waze, Google Maps, and Mattel. Again, these represent “thinking outside of the box” in terms of how we partner with other sectors to improve rail safety. Every time I see a rail-crossing alert pop up in Google Maps or Waze, I think “We did that!”— we verified the locations of tens of thousands of public grade-crossings to remind people to be situationally aware as they approach crossings. And obviously partnering with Mattel on our Stay Safe with Thomas books has been delightful; Thomas is such an iconic brand, and those books will be helping to spread the rail-safety message to kids, parents, caregivers, and educators for years to come.
I know it’s a hard thing to quantify, but what impact do you hope this work has had?

We obviously can’t measure a negative, so it’s hard to know how many incidents we’ve prevented—or lives we’ve saved—over the past seven years. But I know that we’re reaching our target audiences, and that our campaigns are resonating with Canadians. Just take our #STOPTrackTragedies campaign as an example—it features the stories of people who’ve been personally affected by rail crossing and trespassing incidents. We’ve produced 17 #STOPTrackTragedies stories since 2018, and those videos have been viewed more than 10 million times in the last three years alone. Those stories really resonate on social media, and they make people think twice about using tracks as a shortcut or a recreational path, or racing a train at a crossing, or engaging in any number of other unsafe behaviours around tracks and trains. So even though it’s hard to quantify the number of lives that we’ve saved, I'm confident that our campaigns and initiatives are having an impact.
What will you miss about being part of Operation Lifesaver?

I’ll really miss the people—and the generosity of those who’ve shared their stories with us over the years, whether it was for the Today is Better campaign, or the #STOPTrackTragedies campaign. These are people who've been through incredibly tragic and challenging experiences, but they’ve shared their stories in the hopes that it will encourage someone else to behave safely or to reach out for help. I find that inspirational.

Sandra LaRose is a perfect example of that: she lost her daughter, Kailynn, in a distracted-driving rail-crossing incident less than a year before she appeared in our #STOPTrackTragedies campaign in 2019. I couldn't believe the poise and passion that she displayed at the time—and she continues to promote rail safety today. Right now, she’s partnering with OL to share Kailynn’s story in schools across the country to prevent other young people from driving while distracted. I get goosebumps when I think about that.
Your successor hasn’t been named yet, but what advice would you have for the person who takes over?

I’d suggest that they continue to think outside the box, and partner with organizations that OL hasn't collaborated with in the past. Partnering with the rail sector is obviously critical for promoting rail safety, but we're not going to expand our reach unless we collaborate with the Mattels and the Googles of the world.
I also think the campaigns that we’ve developed around personal stories are incredibly compelling, and they really resonate with audiences on social media, so I would continue to produce those.
But I'm sure the new National Director will bring innovative ideas and approaches along with them—so I’m excited to see what’s next for OL. Regardless of the chosen approach, we’ve got a great team in place, both at the head office in Ottawa, and through our network of Rail Safety Ambassadors from coast to coast. So I’m confident that the team will continue to work together and make great strides to #STOPTrackTragedies.