CTS Publications

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

On July 21, 2005, Joseph H. Boardman, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), testified on grade-crossing safety before the Subcommittee on Railroads of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, United States House of Representatives. Given the extensive public information, literature, and analyses on the subject, it would have been appropriate for Mr. Boardman to address three lingering questions:

  1. Is there a clear understanding of the relative causes of grade-crossing accidents, and if not, why not?
  2. In that the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) established sight-obstruction standards for motorists approaching grade crossings, why haven’t similar standards (on railroad property) been adopted by FRA?

  3. Since gates are clearly the most effective warning device at grade crossings, why does FRA stress motorist education (not proven to be effective) over the installation of gates?

Unfortunately, after assigning his agency much credit for the declining accident rate at grade crossings – in a manner similar to other interest groups – the FRA Administrator failed to adequately address any of the above questions, as discussed below.


First, the Administrator admits that FRA’s reporting system does not call for assignment of a “cause code” unless the event also qualifies as a train accident. However, the accident form has a narrative section that should include any information that increases our knowledge of the reasons why the accident occurred and its consequences. Mr. Boardman goes on to state that: The DOT Office of the Inspector General audit report dated June 16, 2004 . . . found that 2,368 or 93 percent of the 2,543 public grade crossing accidents and 242 or 83 percent of the 293 fatalities occurred because drivers in risky behavior or exercised poor judgment at crossings with active and passive warnings. The illogic of the FRA’s conclusion is apparent to students of the subject. Railroads fill out the accident reports at issue and in their narrative descriptions of grade-crossing accidents, they universally blame motorist “failure to yield” as the cause. But what is most incredible about FRA’s conclusion is that its source – DOT’s Inspector General – relied on those railroad reports for its statistical conclusions. Needless to say, it is folly to rely on bias railroad narratives from accident reports completed weeks after grade-crossing accidents occur, for conclusions regarding the relative causes of such accidents. It is also inappropriate to cite the Inspector General for the source of data when in fact, the fact derives from railroad-industry reports. This is a “Catch 22” event illuminated.


The problem of motorist sight obstructions at un-gated grade crossings is a subject not even mentioned by the FRA Administrator. And yet, a 1998 study by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that in 57 percent of grade-crossing accidents studied, motorist sight obstructions were found to exist. Furthermore, FRA’s sister agency, FHA, recommended motorist sight-obstruction standards in 1986, and very similar tolerances have continually been advanced by AASHTO. And finally, motorist sight obstructions have been identified as a contributing cause of grade-crossing accidents in a number of judicial proceedings. Some States have adopted motorist sight-obstruction standards – on railroad property only – but they are few in number and very limited. This is a subject ripe for FRA advocacy, but one that is clearly absent from the agency’s agenda.


There is irrefutable evidence that gates are the safest informational/warning device at grade crossings. In fact, FRA’s own accident statistics show that on a unit-of-traffic basis, gates are 3-6 times (depending on the year) more effective than crossbucks in providing protection at grade crossings. Moreover, while over the past 30 years the accident rate per-crossing has declined steadily at public crossings where many gates have been installed, the same rate has increased at private crossings where gates are almost non-existent. Unfortunately, the FRA Administrator did not address the need for more gates, the effectiveness of gates, and/or the financing of gates. Ideas such as: a dedicated public fund for gate installations or railroads helping to fund gate installations – were not raised. Rather, the Administrator once again touted the motorist education program as an effective way to reduce grade-crossing accidents. Ignoring the fact that there is no credible evidence to conclude anything about the effectiveness of the motorist education program – largely presented by current and ex-railroad employees – the Administrator inappropriately implied that motorist education trumped gates as a safety mechanism.

All in all, FRA seemed to relish in two overall messages at the Hearing. First, it touted the improvement in the grade-crossing safety record and as with others, declared itself one of the responsible parties for such gains. And second, it emphasized its new “action” plan for addressing grade-crossing issues. However, a close examination of this plan reveals much that is more of the same: working with partners, improving technology, expanding education, closing crossings, enhancing enforcement of traffic violations, improving data, etc. – in essence, doing a better job of what currently is being done. But what is currently being done generally falls within the mantra of the motorist being responsible for virtually all grade-crossing accidents, failure to recognize that many crossings are deficient in their geography and/or motorist sight obstructions, and being blind to the value of crossing gates. Alas, the July Hearing was another disappointment from FRA, following others as noted in a series on grade-crossing safety as undertaken by the New York Times in 2004 and 2005.


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