Railroad Crossing Safety
Staying alert is always the first rule of defensive driving, but it’s even more important to pay attention when approaching a railroad crossing. Trains have the right of way, so proceed with caution.
Railway Safety Tips
Any time is train time!
Many drivers pay little or no attention at highway-rail crossings they drive across day after day because they never see a train there. They don’t realize that freight trains do not run on set schedules and can be anywhere at any time going in any direction! At all crossings, and especially those you are most familiar with—–ALWAYS EXPECT A TRAIN!
Trains can’t swerve!
When locomotive engineers see a vehicle or person on the tracks in the path of their train, they can’t swerve out of the way—–there’s no steering wheel! The train simply follows the tracks. Engineers can only sound the warning horn and apply the emergency brakes. A train in emergency braking will stop, but not in time to avoid this collision. (see the following safety fact to find out why).
Trains can’t stop quickly!
Did you know that the average freight train consisting of 100 cars and weighing anywhere from 12 million to 20 million pounds takes over a mile to stop in emergency braking? That’s right! That’s the length of at least 18 football fields travelled before coming to a complete stop! Why such a long distance? There are brakes on every wheel, but it takes that long for all of those brakes to overcome the momentum of the tremendous weight pushing the train. Always yield the right of way to the train because the engineer cannot yield to you.
The average family car weighs about 3,000 pounds. We all know what happens to a 12-ounce can of pop when a car runs over it. The can of pop is totally destroyed because the weight ratio of the car to the can of pop is 4,000 to 1. The average freight train weighing 12 million pounds outweighs a car by the same ratio of 4,000 to 1. When a force of 12 million pounds hits a car, it will be destroyed—–just like the can of pop!
Don’t Ignore the Warnings!
Some crossings are equipped with automatic warning devices such as flashing lights and bells and gates that activate when a train is approaching. These are active warning devices. Many other crossings only have passive warning signs to alert you of a possible hazard ahead. These include the “advance warning sign” (circular, yellow in color, with a black “X” and black letters “R-R”) and the “pavement marking” (large “X” and “R-R” painted on the surface of the road). Amazingly, over half of all collisions occur at crossings equipped with the automatic signals. Why? It’s because some drivers choose to drive around the gates or through the flashing red lights because they thought they could beat the train. (See the following safety fact to find out why many people misjudge the train!).
Beware of the optical illusion!
Because of the huge size of a locomotive (17 feet high and 10 feet wide), it appears to be travelling much slower than we think when viewed from a slight angle at the crossing. The combination of the size and angle create this illusion. The railroad tracks also add to the illusion. The parallel lines of the rails converge toward the horizon and fool our minds into thinking the train is farther away than it actually is. It is virtually impossible to accurately judge the speed of a train when these combinations of illusions are present. The train will be at the crossing before we expect it.
Don’t drive into trains!
Did you know that in 25% of the crashes occurring at highway-rail crossings—–people actually run into the side of the train? It’s true! Often, it’s because the driver is going too fast for conditions, such as darkness, rainy weather or fog. Many drivers “overdrive their headlights”. This means driving too fast to be able to stop in the distance illuminated by your headlights. By the time you see the train at the crossing, it’s too late to avoid the crash. In other instances, there may be high levels of noise in the vehicle (loud radios, conversations, etc.), causing the driver to be inattentive and not hear the train’s warning devices. Always remember to look and listen when you see the warning signs indicating a highway-rail crossing ahead!
Don’t pass, stop or shift!
Drivers who pass vehicles when approaching a highway-rail crossing run the risk of a collision at the crossing. The vehicle being passed may obstruct a clear view of the tracks, or vehicle speed while passing may be too great to stop in time!
Before starting across the tracks, be sure there’s room to get completely across. Many drivers get trapped on the crossing, between other vehicles, and end up getting hit by a train or abandoning their car just in time to see it destroyed!
Many crossings are on a raised surface higher than the roadway. Shifting gears with a manual transmission while going across this raised surface may cause the vehicle to stall on the tracks. Be sure to shift well ahead of or after the crossing to avoid getting stuck on the tracks!
Stalled on the tracks!?
If your vehicle is ever stalled or trapped on the tracks and a train is approaching, get yourself and all other passengers out—–fast! Don’t try to take any other items with you. It may be a fatal mistake! Remember one very important thing when running away from the vehicle—–run away from the tracks at an angle in the direction of the approaching train. When the train strikes the vehicle it will send flying metal and glass ahead of and outward from the locomotive. Many people have been seriously injured and even killed because they ran the wrong direction!
If a train is not approaching, be sure to get yourself and all other passengers out of the vehicle and to a safe location. Call 911 or the police and tell them the location of the stalled vehicle. They will contact the railroad, and the railroad will do everything possible to stop any trains before they get to the crossing.
Watch for the second train!
When you’re at a crossing with more than one track, don’t try to cross immediately after the end of the train passes by. There may be another train approaching on the other track. Trains hide other trains. Many crossing fatalities have resulted because of impatience or unawareness at multiple-track crossings. You will always know how many tracks are at the crossing by observing the familiar “crossbuck” (white X-shaped sign with black letters that spell “railroad crossing”). Directly below the crossbuck is a sign that indicates the number of tracks present if there are multiple tracks at the crossing. The crossbuck is also a regulatory sign that means “yield the right-of-way” to the train.
Many people think railroad tracks are public property. They use the tracks to gain access to recreation areas or they may even use the tracks as a recreation area. For some unexplained reason, others think they have a right to use railroad property. The fact is, railroad tracks are private property and only persons authorized by the railroads can be on that property. Many thousands of people have died thinking they would be safe around railroad tracks. (The following paragraphs explain how poor choices often result in tragedies)
Use caution on bridges and tunnels!
Railroad bridges often times look like a convenient way to access a favorite fishing or hunting place. They don’t look dangerous just standing there when no train is present. Besides being illegal, when you’re up there and find yourself confronted with an approaching train, you suddenly have only two choices—–jump! or get hit by the train! You can’t run fast because there’s no sidewalk or walkway—–just empty spaces between the ties to trap your legs. Even if there is a maintenance walkway, it’s not far enough from the rails to keep you from being struck by the train.
Railroad tunnels pose similar hazards to railroad bridges. There’s no sidewalk and you can’t move fast. When a train is in the tunnel there is an average of 14 inches clearance from the side of the train to the walls of the tunnel—–not enough to safely fit a person!
Use caution as a pedestrian!
Railroad tracks are often used by joggers, hikers, people walking their pets, or as a pathway to ride motorcycles or other all-terrain vehicles plus a wide variety of other activities. What’s the danger? These people are all concentrating on their own activities—–not a train! Many joggers, for example, run with headphones and never hear the engineer’s warning. Motorized vehicles also drown out the locomotive horn. Many people that do hear the warning fail to escape the danger. A lot of them mistakenly think the train can stop for them. Some think the train coming up behind them is on the