CTS Publications


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

Railroad-crossing statistics for the year 2005 have been issued by the Federal Railroad Administration, with the result being a continuation of the flattening in the accident rate. As shown below, while the nation-wide accident rate in 2005 declined a bit from 2004, it is higher than in 2003. Furthermore,

Number of U.S. Accidents

the 3,010 accidents equates to the average figure over the past four years. Similar results have occurred in Ohio, as follows:

Number of Ohio Accidents

In that railroad-crossing accidents have been steadily declining since federal/State programs dedicated to safety were established in the early 1970’s, the question arises as to whether or not some change in direction is needed which would address the so-called “high-hanging” as opposed to the already-plucked “low-hanging” fruit. While the continued installation of gates (the safest device) is certainly worthwhile, there appears to be needed change in the approach to traffic-law enforcement.

Up to this point, the major educational safety program – Operation Lifesaver – has focused solely on motorist responsibilities and ensuing enforcement of traffic laws at railroad crossings. Efforts have included the placement of police on trains to observe motorist behavior, the ticketing of drivers for alleged violation of State traffic laws, and the encouragement of judges to strictly enforce crossing laws relating to motorists. And yet, no attention has been given to the enforcement of railroad responsibilities at such crossings. Five areas of railroad enforcement come to mind, and although local and State police cannot give citations to railroads for illegal behavior, they can notify both the offenders and appropriate agencies in order to lessen future violations.     

  1. Speeding trains: Railroad speed limits are established by the Federal Railroad Administration based on the classification of track. The maximum speed of freight trains is often 60 miles-per-hour, but passenger trains (Amtrak) may travel at up to 80 miles-per-hour. (49CFR213.9)
  2. Whistle blowing: Based on federal law, locomotive engineers must blow whistles in a continuous sequence of two longs, a short, and a long, starting at 15-20 seconds before the train approaches the crossing. (49CFR222.21)
  3. Blocked crossing: Ohio law limits trains from blocking crossings to five minutes, unless the situation is beyond the control of the railroad. (ORC5589.21)
  4. Motor sight obstructions: Ohio law requires railroads to remove obstructive vegetation for 600 feet up and down the track from the crossing, along the railroad right-of-way (usually a width of 33-75 feet on each side of the crossing). (ORC4955.36)
  5. Activation failure: Where gate mechanisms fail, federal law requires (in many cases) railroads to provide alternative safety such as a flagman. (49CFR234.7)  Activation failures are to be reported to the federal government.

While the Federal Railroad Administration and Ohio State authorities (especially the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and local jurisdictions) have the authority to enforce the above laws, there is significant evidence that each of the five laws have been violated. In fact, motorist sight obstructions have been formally documented at a number of unprotected (non-gated) crossings.  Other violations have been noted from observation and in judicial proceedings. No matter, educational entities such as Operation Lifesaver – who encourage, if not induce, law enforcement to fulfill their duties – can do the same when it comes to railroad legal requirements and regulatory-agency authority.

In the case of railroad crossings, law enforcement is a two-way street. Both motorists and railroads are required to comply with traffic laws. To concentrate on the enforcement of motorist traffic laws, while ignoring railroad laws, is to implicitly blame motorists for crossing accidents.  Such an imbalance in traffic-law enforcement is a disservice to safety in general and Ohioans in particular. It is past time for Operation Lifesaver to change its ways in regard to one of its three-E programs – Enforcement – and develop a balanced program that recognizes the responsibilities of both motorists and railroads.


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