CTS Publications

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

Over the past five years, the Angels on Track Foundation has produced and distributed a number of publications, brochures, and quarterly newsletters which are posted on its website. Foundation Trustees have testified before the United States Congress on the matter of railroad-crossing safety. A major aspect of these publications and testimony is their balance in regard to recognizing the causes of railroad-crossing accidents – that is, that crossing accidents can be caused by factors within three broad areas: (1) deficient crossing conditions (2) improper train operations, and (3) inappropriate motorist behavior (including deficient vehicles). This balance has been confirmed by the judicial system in that courts have identified accident causes under each of these three categories. Furthermore, it is undeniable that certain responsibilities have to be met by railroads, crossing authorities, and motorists if safety is to be maximized at railroad crossings. And yet, such a balanced view is lacking in the general public, and among most of the so-called “insiders” involved in providing safety at railroad crossings. This bias is toward blaming motorists for virtually all railroad-crossing accidents, even before the accidents occur. Such a pre-judgment is in itself counter-productive to providing maximum safety at the more than 235,000 railroad crossings throughout the United States – the majority that are unprotected in that they lack automatic gates and lights. An examination of the country’s major program to educate the public regarding railroad-crossing safety reveals a major contributor to this inappropriate bias.   

The major educational safety program – Operation Lifesaver (OL) – 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. Even more singularly focused, is OL’s involvement in influencing the investigation of railroad-crossing accidents. OL has filled a void created by the lack of federal or State standards for investigating railroad-crossing accidents – a void that parallels the lack of accident investigation by both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration – by helping to “educate” first responders as to what to determine as the probable cause of such accidents. A case in point is a publication that OL endorses entitled, “Welcome To GCCI, Grade Crossing Collision Investigation." In that document, eleven “common causes of collisions” are listed as follows:

  • The motorist sees the train, but misjudges its speed and distance.
  • The motorist races the train to the crossing.
  • Failure to look for a second train on another track.
  • The motorist is familiar with the crossing, but did not use caution.
  • Failure to obey signs and automatic warning devices.
  • Turning in front of a train from a parallel roadway
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • The automobile stalls on a railroad track and the occupants fail to get the vehicle off.
  • Driver inattention.
  • Driving too fast for road conditions.
  • Faulty mechanical equipment on vehicle.

The publication informs its audience that it is designed to help with the information being presented and requires your active participation. Once completed, this book will be your guide when investigation highway-rail grade crossing collisions.

It is unfathomable that first responders should be trained to look for irresponsible motorist behavior at the exclusion of other potential causes of accidents. Such a single focus ignores federal and State laws that require railroads to fulfill safety responsibilities at crossings. For example, consider the following federal and State laws that if violated, could cause railroad-crossing accidents:

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) Train speeds are recorded on locomotive event recorders.
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) As with train speeds, whistle-blowing sequences are recorded on locomotive event recorders.
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) Blocked trains during night hours may be unseen by approaching motorists.
4. Motorist sight
4. 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) The failure of railroads to comply with this law can result in motorists having blocked vision of approaching trains.
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. Gates have been known to have stayed open when motorist’s approached the crossing, and conversely, to have remained down for inappropriate long times, when a train was not approaching.
Either case presents special hazards to motorists.

Furthermore, railroads are required by federal and State law to maintain their crossings to specific standards, and the crossing itself must meet national engineering standards set by the federal government and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

There are a number of inter-related dangers in OL’s one-sided approach to stating (in fact, assuming) that motorists are at fault for virtually all railroad-crossing accidents.  First and foremost, OL’s target audiences probably believe this inappropriate message. For example, the public at large believes, without any supporting evidence, that motorists are the sole cause of railroad-crossing accidents. Discussions with many citizens reveals this fact and its only after a discussion that includes the identification of other accident causes that people seem to “get it.” The very people that OL is allegedly trying to save seem to have the idea that they, as self-anointed good drivers are immune from railroad-crossing accidents. Similarly, when first responders do not look beyond irresponsible motorist behavior in their post-accident investigation, they skew accident statistics, provide unearned protection from liability to railroads, and deprive victims’ families of appropriate recourse. In fact, even juries can be tainted by pre-dispositions toward blaming motorists. In turn, the media seems to be affected by the bias toward motorist fault, as there are a number of occasions when initial news’ reports cites – or at least infers – poor motorist driving as the probable cause of accidents. Furthermore, an assumption that motorist behavior causes railroad-crossing accidents, public (federal and State) funds may be misallocated to what would otherwise be their proper place under a balanced approach to accident causes. For example, tens of thousands of additional crossing gates (by far, the safest protective device) could have been installed over the past 30 years if at least some tax-payer money would have been re-directed from OL programs and other misguided undertakings.

Finally, an over-emphasis on motorist fault can lead to a lack of enforcement of such federal and State railroad-crossing laws as identified above. 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 cited above have been violated. In fact, motorist sight obstructions have been formally documented at a number of unprotected (non-gated) crossings. In the case of railroad crossings, law enforcement is a two-way street. Both motorists and railroads are required to comply with traffic laws.  

The bias toward assuming motorist behavior as the cause of virtually all railroad-crossing accidents exists without underlying evidence. There is almost no accident investigation on the part of the federal government, and when such investigations are made, they most often come years after the accidents occurred. It should not be the role of OL – an organization partially funded by the railroad industry, and largely manned by railroad and ex-railroad employees – to fill the void created by public agencies. At a minimum OL should get out of the business of railroad-crossing accident investigation. What is also desirable is for the federal and/or State governments to become more involved in investigating railroad-crossing accidents -- operating under a set of standards that recognizes that such accidents may be caused by a variety of factors ranging from deficient and unprotected crossings, to irresponsible railroad and/or motorist behavior. No entity has a monopoly as to the causes of railroad-crossing accidents.


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