CTS Publications


By: Dr. Harvey A. Levine, Director, Crossing to Safety®

Over the past 30 years, there has been a steady downward trend in the number of casualties (deaths plus injuries) from grade-crossing accidents at public crossings. The improvement in safety has been significant, even though it has been often overstated – overstated in the sense that statistics almost always refer to the decline in the absolute number of accidents, deaths and injuries, rather than relating those decreases to the huge drop in the number of railroad crossings. After all, more than 25,000 public crossings have been eliminated since 1975. Thus, the more appropriate measurement is grade-crossing casualties-per-railroad-grade-crossing. Since this paper focuses on public crossings, the measurement employed is casualties- (at public crossings) per-public-crossing.

Shown below in five-year increments, are the annual number of public grade crossings since 1975, the number of casualties at those crossings, and the number of casualties-per-crossing. Three observations come to mind:

Year Number of
Number of
Number of
Per Crossing
1975 219,161 4,624 .0210
1980 215,428 4,450 .0206
1985 197,383 3,105 .0157
1990 176,572 3,550 .0201
1995 163,917 2,278 .0138
2000 155,974 1,448 .0092
2004 (Est.) 149,000 1,325 .0088
  1. The number of public grade crossings has steadily declined, with lower numbers in each and every year since 1975. Currently, there are about 32% fewer crossings than in 1975, indicating that without any improvement in safety at public crossings, there should be 32% fewer casualties from accidents at those crossings.
  2. The number of casualties has also declined since 1975, but at a far greater rate (71%) than the 32% decline in crossings. Thus, there has clearly been an improvement in safety at public grade crossings.
  3. When the general decline in the number of casualties is appropriately related to the steadily decline in the number of crossings, the result is a 58% decrease in casualties over the past 30 years.

Obviously, it would be valuable to identify the cause(s) of the impressive decline in the casualty rate at public crossings over the past 30 years. A likely candidate for the leading cause is the installation of automated gates (always equipped with flashing lights), as such gates have been found by both research studies and statistics published by the Federal Railroad Administration, to be by far, the most effective device at crossings for reducing accidents, deaths and injuries. Furthermore, the decline in the number of public crossings has already been accounted for in the 58% figure, and there is no reliable way to measure the impact of motorist education on the casualty rate.

As shown below, there have been over 25,000 new installations of automated crossing gates – fueled by taxpayer money – over the past 30 years. This has resulted in an increase in the percentage of gated public crossings rising from 5.6% in 1975 to an estimated 25.4% in 2004 – equating to a gain of 354%. Since the most dangerous and/or heavily-traveled crossings are the ones that tend to receive gate installations (on a priority basis), it appears that aside from closing crossings and separating railroad track from roadways, the installation of gates is the single most effective way of saving lives and reducing injuries at public railroad crossings. Further confirming this finding is the fact that the casualty-rate-per-crossing for private railroad crossings over the past 30 years, has increased; these crossings do not receive publicly funded gate installations.

Year Number of
Number of
of Gates
to Total
1975 219,961 12,300 5.6%
1980 215,428 16,291 7.6
1985 197,383 21,129 10.7
1990 175,572 26,194 14.8
1995 163,917 29,912 18.2
2000 155,974 34,296 22.0
2004 (Est.) 149,000 37,900 25.4

The conclusion about the effectiveness of automated gates is a vital lesson to those who desire to divert public funds from gate installations to other uses. It is also an important lesson to those who preach that education is the key to improving safety at railroad grade crossings; motorist education may be a worthwhile venture, but its precise effectiveness is dubious. And it should be of extreme value to those in Congress, public agencies, and elsewhere that want to know how to reduce the carnage of our nation’s intersections between railroad track and motorist roadways. Any way one looks at the grade-crossing environment, it is undeniable that automated gates have been effective in providing increased safety at our nation’s railroad grade crossings.


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