CTS Publications

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

Intuitively, it would seem that an indisputable conclusion regarding warning devices at railroad grade crossings is that automated gates are much safer than passive markers such as crossbucks (the most popular device) and stop signs. After all, gates warn motorists that trains are approaching while passive devices only indicate that railroad track lies ahead. As stated by a grade-crossing expert about crossbucks . . . as a stand alone passive device, we expect the motorist to somehow accord some deeper meaning to it. Where else in the practice of traffic control do we permit the use of the same sign to have different meanings in different applications? (Tom Zeinz, Proceedings, 1991 National Conference on Highway-Rail Safety, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July, 1991.) Still, there is a question as to the relative effectiveness of crossing gates, as it has been alleged by some interest groups that gates “are not the answer” and that many accidents occur at gates due to irresponsible behavior by motorists. This paper shows that railroad crossing gates are not only the safest warning device at railroad grade crossings, they are the overwhelmingly major reason why accidents, deaths and injuries have declined at public crossings (where public road authorities maintain the road component of crossings) over the past 30 years.

While the federal government didn’t legislate a continual funding program for the upgrading of warning devices at railroad grade crossings until 1973, two earlier research studies concluded that automated gates (equipped with flashing lights) were more effective than passive devices: (1) The Automotive Safety Foundation, Traffic Control & Roadway Elements: Their Relationship to Highway Safety, U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, 1963, and (2) Alan Vorhees & Associates, “Factors Influencing Safety at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings,” Highway Research Board, Program Report 50, 1968. However, these studies were undertaken at a time when there were about 5,000 gated crossings in existence, equating to 1.4% of an estimated 370,000 total crossings, and 2.2% of an estimated 225,000 public crossings in the country. Things would soon change. The enactment of the Highway Safety Act of 1973 was the driving force.

Over the past 32 years, the federal government has allocated billions of dollars to States for safety improvements at grade crossings, with much of the money going toward gate installations. Furthermore, States have funded a limited number of gate installations with their own money. As shown below, the number of gates has increased from around 12,300 in 1975 to about 37,900 in 2004, representing about a tripling in the number of gates. The 37,000 gated crossings in 2004 equate to 25.4% of the 149,000 public grade

Year Number
of Gates
1975 12,300 (Estimated)
1985 21,129
1995 29,912
2004 37,900 (Estimated)

crossings in this country. (Private crossings are rarely gated.) Fifteen years after the 1973 legislation, the Federal Highway Administration – the agency that allocates federal grade-crossing funds to States – found gates to be the most effective warning device, as concluded in its Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Manual, Second Edition, September 1986. Furthermore, the Federal Railroad Administration began publishing statistics that showed gates to be much safer than passive devices. As shown below for the latest published year (2003), the information reveals that gates are more than three times as effective as crossbucks, and more than eight times as effective as stop signs, in preventing grade-crossing accidents. (It is important to measure grade-crossing accidents

Type of Device
Accidents Per 100,000 Units
of Average Daily Traffic
Stop Sign

on the basis of traffic throughput, in that gated crossings handled significantly more traffic than passive crossings.)

More recently, additional evidence verifying the relative effectiveness of gates has come to light. The author of this paper compared casualty (deaths plus injuries) at public and private grade crossings since 1975, and the difference between the two was startling. On one hand, the casualty rate per-crossing at private crossings has increased over the past 29 years. Although casualties per-crossing vary widely over the 29 years between 1975 and 2004, as somewhat shown below, employing a “least-squares” statistical methodology resulted in a slightly increasing trend line over the period.

Private Railroad Grade Crossings
Year Number

Casualties Per

1975 142,291 153 .0010
1980 139,217 273 .0019
1985 127,936 224 .0017
1990 116,267 203 .0017
1995 104,759 195 .0018
2000 98,789 196 .0019
2004 (E) 94,000 154 .0016

On the other hand, it has been well documented that there has been a steady downward trend in the number of casualties at public railroad grade crossings. In fact, the casualty rate at public crossings has declined from .0210 casualties-per-crossing in 1975 to .0092 casualties-per-crossing in 2004, representing a decline of 56%. The question thus becomes: Why the increase in casualties at private crossings in the face of huge declines in casualties at public crossings? In that motorist education and the improvement in motor vehicle technology do not distinguish between driving at private and public crossings, there is only one logical answer to the question: the installation of over 25,000 automated gates at public crossings between 1975 and 2004.

In view of the evidence presented above, it can be said with a high degree of certainty that automated gates constitute the safest type of warning device at railroad grade crossings. Conversely, motorist education may have had an immaterial impact on improving safety. If this is the case, as it seems, then one can speculate as to how safety would have been improved if the tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars spent on motorist education had been used to install additional crossing gates. How many more people would have been alive? How many fewer injuries would there have been? How much less damage would have incurred? This is not to suggest that motorist education does not have potential value. Rather, the issue is one of the most effective ways to use limited funds. And by far of greater importance, the evidence supporting the rationale of automated gates strongly suggests that absent grade separation and closing unneeded crossings, that the installation of more gates is the answer. This answer was learned long ago in such countries as England, France and Germany where automated gates are standard equipment at virtually all railroad crossings.

Table No. 1 - Number of Grade-Crossing Accidents/Casualties
Table No. 2 - Number of Grade Crossings
Table No. 3 - Casualties Per PUBLIC Grade Crossing
Table No. 4 - Casualties Per PRIVATE Grade Crossing
Table No. 5 - Gate Installations at PUBLIC Grade Crossings


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