On the evening of February 3, 2015, a driver of a Mercedes SUV passed through the hamlet of Valhalla, NY, in Westchester County, twenty miles north of the Bronx. For reasons unknown, possibly to avoid a traffic jam, she strayed from her normal route. The skies were clear and visibility was good for a typical winter night. On the darkened road, with only three other cars in sight, she found herself facing the tracks of the Metro North rail line.
What happened next is still a mystery to those charged with making sense of it all. The SUV was stopped on the railroad tracks in the rail grade crossing and positioned in an easterly direction when the railroad crossing gates moved to the closed position. Witnesses reported the driver of the SUV as being stopped in the crossing prior to the gates lowering. When the gate lowered it struck the rear portion of the vehicle. The driver exited the vehicle, looked at the damage, then got back in, and drove forward. Her vehicle was then struck by the oncoming train, killing her and five of the estimated 650 passengers on the train. Fifteen others were injured in what turned out to be one of the worst rail disasters in US history.
Perhaps she was confused after changing her normal route because an accident tied up traffic on the Taconic State Parkway. Maybe her view of the road was somewhat obscured by a nearby building. Maybe she was unaware of being on a crossing until the gate came down on her vehicle. Even the experts don’t know.
What we do know is that rail grade crossings are still the most dangerous intersections on American roads. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) found that in 2016 there were 2,025 collisions resulting in 265 fatalities and 798 injuries. Despite our best efforts, there still is a long way to go for rail crossing safety.
In 1972 when the average number of collisions at US highway-rail grade crossings had risen above 12,000 incidents annually, the Idaho governor’s office, along with the Idaho Peace Officers and Union Pacific Railroad launched a six-week public awareness educational campaign called Operation Lifesaver (OL) to promote highway-rail grade crossing safety.
After Idaho’s crossing-related fatalities fell that year by 43%, the successful program was adopted by Nebraska (1973) and Kansas and Georgia the following year. Within a decade, it had spread around the country. In 1986 a non-profit national Operation Lifesaver office was created to help support the efforts of state OL programs and raise national awareness on highway-rail grade crossing issues.
Here’s some of the observations made over the years by OL:
- A motorist is almost 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in a collision involving another motor vehicle.
- About every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train.
- Highway-rail grade crossing incidents account for 32% of all rail-related fatalities.
- Grade crossing accidents show a seasonal factor. Numbers of grade crossing accidents are below average in March through July and above average in August through February.
- There is a link between the amount of daylight hours and number of grade crossing accidents. Between 5pm and 9pm, when it is dark in December but light in June (due to daylight savings), December has a higher percentage of grade crossing accidents.
- Most weekday grade crossing accidents (69%) occur between 7am and 7pm.
- On weekend nights, between 1am and 3am, there are 3 times as many grade crossing accidents as compared to the same times on weekday nights.
- Overall, the average age of drivers involved in grade crossing accidents is 42.24.
- The average age of drivers involved in late night accidents on Friday and Saturday nights is 7-8 years younger than the overall average of all drivers involved in grade crossing accidents.
- Males and females are equally likely to be involved in weekend grade crossing accidents.
Tips for rail grade crossing safety:
- The flashing red lights are like a stop sign—you should proceed only when safe to do so.
- Be aware that trains cannot stop quickly. A freight train moving at 55mph takes a mile or more to stop once the emergency brakes are applied. That’s at least 18 football fields!
- Weather conditions, such as fog, rain, and wind, can affect a driver’s ability to see and hear approaching trains and to determine the safety of crossing the tracks. Additional caution must be exercised during such conditions.
- Do not get trapped on the tracks. Only proceed through a rail grade crossing if you are sure you can completely clear the crossing without stopping.
- When you are near the crossing, slow down and test your brakes (this alerts motorists behind you of your intent to stop).
- Stay on the right side of the roadway—don’t attempt to pass on the tracks.
- Stop no closer than 15 feet and no farther than 50 feet from the tracks. The train is wider than the tracks themselves, so don’t stop closer than 15 feet. If you are farther than 50 feet, you can’t see down the tracks.
- Start crossing when you are sure that you don’t see or hear a train or a warning horn/bell.
- Don’t stop on the tracks—keep moving and get across as quickly as possible.
- Don’t change gears on the tracks. Cross in a low gear: use a gear that will not require you to change gears until you completely clear the hazard zone.
While rail grade crossings are a hazard for drivers and accidents do happen, the dangers can be reduced. Successful programs, like Operation Lifesaver, have shown that lives can be saved through awareness and education. Drivers that know the risks, proceed with caution, and follow straightforward driving behaviors can do a lot to protect themselves and others. Promoting rail grade crossing safety and sharing knowledge with those around us can help us all have safer journeys on our roads and railways.
Acadia Insurance is pleased to share this material with its customers. Please note, however, that nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services. This material is for general informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness.