A 79-year-old woman attempting to drive across railroad tracks in James City County, Virginia (VA), lost her life on July 31, 2010, when an Amtrak passenger train slammed into her car and pushed it nearly one-quarter of a mile down the tracks. Reports in the Daily Press note that the fatal accident occurred at a grade crossing on private property and that no gates or warning lights marked the crossing.

The train was traveling under the maximum speed limit, but the car’s driver had only a stop sign and crossbuck alerting her to the presence of tracks; there was no definite warning that a train was rushing toward her. Neither state nor federal law requires trains to blow their whistles when passing through James City County.

Amtrak train crossing accident in James City County, VAThe photo to the left, taken by county police, shows the aftermath of the accident. Lower on this page, you can see the intersection of tracks and pavement leading onto a privately owned piece of land. With some 90,000 such private grade crossings in the United States, tragedies like the one this past weekend outside of Williamsburg are likely to recur with depressing frequency.

Indeed, as a first step toward developing national guidelines or requirements for safely marking railroad track crossings and making it more difficult for cars, trucks and pedestrians to put themselves in the way of approaching trains, the Federal Railroad Administration determined that “there were still 2,746 collisions and 338 deaths at America’s nearly 227,000 [public and private] grade crossings” in 2008.
Richmond Road, James City County, VA, Railroad Crossing

The site of this past weekend’s accident — the 6900 block of Richmond Road in the town of Norge — has apparently seen its share of close calls over the years. According to people living near the crossing, a car lost its rear bumper to a train a few weeks earlier, and several other minor accidents have occurred.

The only way to prevent injuries and deaths at grade crossings is to keep people in vehicles or on foot off railroad tracks. Rail operators and track owners should do everything they can to make it difficult for people NOT to know a train is coming. Whether that means installing automatic gates and flashing lights, instituting company rules about sounding whistles near intersections or putting some other measures in place, the important message to take from last weekend’s deadly accident is that such efforts must be made.