Nearly 3,300 Americans have died this decade when their cars or truck were struck by freight, passenger or commuter trains at highway-railroad crossings. Almost three times as many drivers have been injured in train collisions during that period, according to data compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Add in the 400-500 pedestrians killed each year while walking across or along train tracks, and the needs for upgrades to and constant reminders of the importance railroad crossing safety are undeniable.
The Arlington, Virginia (VA)-based nonprofit Operation Lifesaver exists to fulfill these needs from the railroad’s perspective but not necessarily from the motor vehicle drivers’ perspective.These two views are not necessarily the same. Vehicle safety advocates like the Angels On Track Foundation promote placing more active warning devices such as lights and gates at rail crossings to protect drivers. Traditional railroad crossbucks and pavement markings are passive devices that give no useful warning that a train is fast approaching a crossing and that drivers must stop or move off the tracks.
One thing industry and driver safety advocates agree on is that freight or passenger train traveling at highway speed cannot stop in a short distance. Almost no states require a driver to come to a full stop when approaching a railroad crossing. So when a driver going 55 mph along a rural highway nears a track along which a train is also traveling at 55 mph, the driver has only a second or two to react and save his or her life. Also, if a motorist creeps over a railroad crossing–fully paying attention–exercising all the caution in the world may not help if a suddenly train rounds a curve on the track only a couple of hundred yards away.
This is where motorist safety advocates and railroad side safety advocates disagree over what constitutes sufficient warning at rail crossings. No one wants to say relying on a horn blast is the most precise safety measure, and, certainly, a mere crossbuck on a pole gives no active warning of the approaching train. A sign gives no timely alert!
On Wednesday, Oct. 29, the organization sponsored a special rail trip for police, emergency responders and public safety personnel to demonstrate how accidents at rail crossing can occur and be prevented. While running along Norfolk Southern tracks between Norfolk and Petersburg, video monitors on the train captured at least one car driving around lowered crossing gates as the train approached. No accidents occurred, but the potential obviously existed.
The driver committed an inexcusable violation. The only “excusable” reason for such an act would be if the lights or gates were known to be malfunctioning for days and had not been fixed by the railroad. Even then, though, the immense danger of an approaching train would still exist.
My colleagues and I have been blogging about rail crossing and workplace safety for years. Many of our Web posts have called attention to deficiencies in establishing and maintaining safe crossings. While rail operators can never automatically be assumed to be at fault when crossing accidents occur, railroads do have responsibilities for minimizing the risk of such accidents. That is, in most states, while In most states, motorists have duties to look and listen for an approaching train and not to proceed if there is evidence of any approaching train, railroads have a corresponding duty to provide reasonable warnings of trains approaching highway crossings.
Operation Lifesaver, which draws funding and support from the Railway Supply Institute, Amtrak and the Association of American Railroads among other industry groups and companies, is evidence that rail operators do acknowledge their responsibilities–even if they do not specify what those responsibilities are.
For one thing, railroads have been trying to save money by outsourcing railroad track and crossing maintenance.railroad industry lobbyists had pushed many states to pass laws to require the posting of only simple stop signs at virtually every railroad crossing that did not already have lights and gates. The railroads even funded a special safety study to try to prove the safety of this measure.
Oops! The well-researched study reported by Richard Raub in the respected ITE Journal in April 2006 instead proved that more railroad crossing accidents occurred at railroad crossings with stop signs than occurred at crossings without stop signs. The reasons were not clear, but, essentially, it appeared that because of the slow speed at which all cars crossed the crossings after a full stop, the “window of danger” time on the crossings actually was greater. Statistically, this may have led to more accidents. The railroads quietly ignored the study and not a mention of it has occurred since. Except in my blog posts and those of other advocates of increased active warning devices.
My take: Railroad safety awareness is important; however, the most fail-safe improvements at railroad crossings are methods that provide visual cues (active warnings) to an approaching driver. Clearly, lights and gates, and even new and future applications of GPS between the train engine and the light or gate at a crossing can improve crossing safety. Much work remains to be done.
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