CTS Publications


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

Operation Lifesaver (OL) is considered by many to be this country’s premier educational entity in regard to safety at railroad grade crossings. The organization is largely funded by the federal government (Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration), receives other monies from railroads and related organizations, is staffed with several thousand volunteers, has been praised by its contributors and various politicians (some who have been honored by OL), and is not shy in tooting its own horn by directly linking its existence with the reduction of grade-crossing accidents over the past 30 years. Increased OL funding is part and parcel of our nation’s annual budget proposals. And yet, OL readily admits that its educational messages address advisable safety practices of motorists (and pedestrians), without giving consideration to the possibility of deficient grade crossings, and/or irresponsible railroad behavior. OL justifies these exclusions on the basis that its role is limited to motorist behavior and nothing else. Matters of grade-crossing conditions and railroad responsibilities/behavior fall under the purview of the Federal Railroad Administration and State governments, including highway authorities.

At first blush, OL may seem to present a plausible explanation for its limited presentations – especially when it supports its position with self-acclaimed kudos. However, an examination below the surface reveals that safety education, crossing conditions, and railroad behavior are intertwined components of the same issue – that issue being the most effective way to save lives at railroad crossings. Consider the two broad examples below.

  1. Behavior at Gated Crossings: OL preaches that automated gates do not provide a remedy to grade-crossing accidents in that about half of all collisions occur at crossings with active warning devices (gates and lights, and lights only). An ensuing message about motorists being impatient and encircling depressed gates gives the explicit impression that virtually all collisions at gated crossings are caused by the victims. Therefore, OL’s message to motorists is that they should never encircle depressed gates unless they are instructed to do so by a traffic guard. There is certainly nothing wrong with such advice. The problem is one of omission.

    OL fails to inform its audiences that only about a quarter of all grade-
    crossing collisions occur at gated crossings; that gated crossings handle much more traffic than passive crossings, thereby making gated crossings significantly safer on a unit-of-traffic basis than non gated crossings; and, that one of the causes of collisions at gated crossings is activation failure. Thus, it is not enough for motorists to avoid the encirclement of depressed gates. They must also expect gate failures to occur, thereby slowing down and looking for approaching trains, even when the gates are in an upward position. Furthermore, when motorists encounter deficient gate operations, they should immediately call the phone number (800) posted at the crossing, and if possible, inform local officials of the malfunction. It is potentially disastrous for motorists to be “dead right” in maintaining legal speeds through crossings with raised gates, when such gates are stuck in the open position.

  2. Behavior at Passive Crossings: OL teaches its audiences to listen and look for approaching trains before entering passive (usually, crossbucks) grade crossings. After all, motorists are required to yield to oncoming trains in that 5,000-ton trains cannot stop in short order, sometimes taking up to a mile to stop. But OL does not inform its audiences that sometimes train engineers do not engage locomotive horns and whistles at the appropriate time, in the correct sequence, and/or at all. Furthermore, there are numerous passive grade crossings with deficient motorist sight lines. This means that motorists traveling at legal speeds may not be able to see far enough up or down the track to avoid collisions with approaching trains. While there are national standards for adequate motorist sight lines, how are motorists to know what these standards are? Why does OL not even address the issue of adequate sight lines in its presentations? Similarly, why does OL not inform its audiences that while listening for trains is advisable, that they cannot rely on the locomotive engineer sounding the warning device?

    I believe that simply knowing about potential railroad operating deficiencies and inadequate motorist sight lines provides motorists with a heightened sense of danger about railroad grade crossings. This belief is based on my observations of motorist behavior at un-protected grade crossings, and my interviews with many people who previously did not have an appreciation of the problems with unsounded train warning devices and inadequate motorist sight distances. In the first instance, although the overwhelming majority of motorists approach grade crossings at legal speeds and look both ways, a number of people do not slow down to a level which allows them to overcome inadequate sight lines. Where sight obstructions exist, it is advisable to “creep” up to the track to the point where motorists can see for approximately 1,000 feet or so, up and down the track. My discussions with people who were uninformed about the sound and sight issues – which is just about everyone -- resulted in their awakenings and commitments to be being aware of such deficiencies. As more than a few acquaintances have said to me, “After talking with you, I will never approach a grade crossing in the same manner.”

OL presentations appear to be relatively sound, but they do not go far enough. In the case of grade-crossing safety, correct but partial messages can give self-anointed good motorists a false sense of security when approaching crossings. It is past time for a balanced approach toward grade crossing safety education. If OL does not pick up the banner, someone else should. And the federal authorities that fund OL should require a balanced educational message as part of its financing criteria.



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