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Four Common Causes of Car-Train Accidents at Railroad Crossings

Richard N. Shapiro
Recognized as Virginia "Super Lawyer" in Law & Politics Magazine (since '10)

Railroad crossing accidents involving a train and a car or truck can have devastating consequences, especially for the driver and passenger(s) in the car. Thousands of people are killed or suffer very serious injuries every year in the U.S. because of these types of accidents. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration estimates that cars and trains collide with each other every 12 minutes leading to a total of 9,570 train incidents/accidents in 2009.

But what exactly causes these railroad crossing accidents? It's a tough question with no single, definitive answer. Many car-train wrecks involve a combination of factors which led to the accident. Often the local police just take the railroad company investigators' word for it and blame the auto driver for any train wreck where the highway intersects the rails at grade. However, there are some common causes that we've noticed in the cases our
railroad crossing accident law firm has handled in which the managers or employees of the railroad were negligent. Here are  four  classic contributing factors that lead to  railroad grade  crossing accidents, where the railway company is the primary cause:

1.    Maintenance Issues
The term "maintenance" is pretty broad. What we mean is the maintenance of the actual train or rail system along with maintenance in and around the railroad crossing itself. Numerous car-train wrecks feature a train that had defective brakes, a problem with the controls used by the engineer or conductor, and other mechanical flaws. There are also maintenance issues around the railroad crossing such as improper care of vegetation producing high foliage (this type of sight obstruction can block a car driver's view when approaching the rail crossing) 

2.     Drowsy train operator
Of the nearly 10,000 car-train accidents,
human factors (including drowsy train operators) contributed to 34.91 percent of these incidences. This problem would need to be addressed by the railroad company which employs the drowsy train operator and what type of work schedule they had them on. Amtrak and the freight companies, like Norfolk Southern and CSXT, often press their workers to the limits. It's also an issue that needs to be addressed by the individual  operator or transportation crew. If they failed to get adequate rest and that caused them to fall asleep or become drowsy while on the job, they are putting their own safety at risk as well as their fellow train crew members and the motoring public. 

3.    Distracted train operator
This is becoming a common problem. Train operators  sometimes talk on their cell phone or repeatedly text while on the job. This takes their eyes off the tracks and can lead to a very serious crossing accident since the time lost to apply the brakes can make the impact of the train-car crash even worse. The FRA is tightening up the rules that apply to this problem. A distraction  also can cause the engine's horn or whistle not to be sounded  by the  crew as required.

4.    Safety gate failure
When approaching a railroad crossing, you may see two safety gate bars and if a train is approaching, those gates should  drop down to prevent a car or truck from getting caught on the tracks. Unfortunately, many safety gates malfunction and stay up, even when a train is approaching. This can lead to a vehicle getting stuck on the crossing, especially if there is a traffic jam and vehicles are not able to move or allow room for the vehicle caught to get off the tracks. Our railroad attorneys have experience in reviewing the locomotive cameras, black box data event recorders, and signalization information to prove when the lights, gates and electronics messed up. Also, many private crossings and public ones too do not have sufficient signs and warnings.

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