POINT OF VIEW: A renewed focus on railroad crossing safety

Just over a month ago, a chartered Amtrak train carrying members of Congress, their staff and their families, collided with a truck at a rail crossing in Virginia, killing a passenger of the truck and injuring several others. Our hearts go out not only to those who lost a family member that morning, but for the hundreds who are killed or injured each year in similar accidents.

While the accident is still under investigation, a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report found the truck may have maneuvered around the crossing arm before being struck by the train. Ninety-four percent of all rail-related fatalities and injuries occur at railroad crossings or due to trespassing. Approximately every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train in the United States. So, the department is redoubling its efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of railroad crossings and remind drivers that trains can’t always stop in time to avoid vehicles.

This month, the department launched a media awareness campaign (“Stop! Trains Can’t.”) sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The campaign will target areas at higher risk for crossing accidents through social, radio and digital ads. It will focus on educating drivers in those states where the nation’s most dangerous crossings are located, as well as in the areas in which 75 percent of the crashes occurred in 2017. The ads, in both English and Spanish, will focus on drivers who are more prone to take risks, those in a hurry, and those unaware of the speed and stopping distance of trains.

While many can be reached through these campaigns, the department is asking for the public’s help to reinforce this message with family and friends to help prevent what have become all too common events.

These crashes are avoidable, but the onus is on automobile drivers because trains cannot stop quickly. A train traveling at 55 miles per hour takes a mile or more to come to a stop. Accidents can happen any time — 73 percent of railroad crossing accidents occur in clear weather conditions. In 2016, railroad crossing fatalities increased compared to the previous year. There were 2,041 railroad crossing incidents in that year alone, and approximately 260 fatalities.

The Department of Transportation is partnering with tech companies to add alerts of upcoming railroad crossings to mobile map applications, and is testing intrusion detection technology to provide advanced warning to trains of a vehicle on the tracks. We are also partnering with Operation Lifesaver, Inc. on rail safety education initiatives to encourage drivers to make safe choices at crossings.

Here’s the formula: if you are a motorist or pedestrian, slow down, look both ways, and listen when you approach a railroad crossing. Stay alert and avoid the distractions of phones, music and conversation. Check that you have enough room on the other side of the tracks to cross safely.

America’s rail network makes a vital contribution to our growing economy and provides transportation options for millions. Ridership on commuter railroads continues to grow while intermodal freight rail volume set a new record in 2017. As both rail and vehicle traffic continues to increase, we all have a responsibility to help ensure that everyone understands the dangers of railroad crossings and acts appropriately when approaching them.


Editor’s note: Batory is administrator of the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.

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