Why Are People Still Driving Around Lowered Gates at Railroad Crossings?

National Rail Safety Week is a perfect time to draw attention to the right behavior around train tracks.

Alex Epstein
September 16, 2019

History reminds us of some of the deadliest train wrecks in the U.S., including the anniversary of a Connecticut derailment 50 years ago last month that has inspired renewed calls for the implementation of Positive Train Control technology. Most deaths involving trains are preventable and involve lapses in judgement, which means we can one day create 100% safe operations for our nation’s trains.

Given what we know about the physics of a speeding locomotive, it seems unfathomable anyone would try and race a train through a crossing. No one wins when that race is lost. Yet in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train every four hours, and most of these incidents occur at a grade crossing, where the tracks meet the road.

While the National Transportation Safety Board continues to push for the implementation of Positive Train Control to alleviate train derailments and head-on train collisions, we all need to make rail safety a priority for ourselves and our families.

Deaths and injuries related to train crashes continue to happen every single day at grade crossings. In fact, the number of drivers going around lowered gates has spiked in recent years. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash data tells us:

  • Between 2014 and 2018, 1,538 drivers went around a lowered gate and were struck by a train, accounting for 14% of all collisions; 798 people died attempting to cross tracks during that time period
  • In 2018 alone, 99 people (a 10-year high) were killed because a driver went around a lowered gate

Every roadway-rail crossing fatality is preventable when extra precautions are taken around tracks:

  • Never try to beat a train, whether on foot or in a vehicle
  • Never stop on the tracks; if your car stalls on the tracks, get out immediately
  • Stay off the tracks if the lights are on or the gate is down
  • Expect a train any time of the day or night
  • Be extra alert if there are two or more tracks; a second or third train might be approaching
  • More than 210,000 railroad crossings in the U.S. now have signs identifying each location; call the toll-free phone number on the sign to report a gate malfunction or hazard on the tracks
  • When traveling at 55 miles per hour, it takes a train at least a mile to stop. A 12 million-pound train would smash a 3,000-pound car just as the car would flatten a soda can on the road. The weight ratio is the same, about 4,000 to 1.

National Rail Safety Week is Sept. 22-28. The goal of the annual Operation Lifesaver campaign is zero – zero incidents, zero injuries, zero fatalities. It’s a perfect time to remind ourselves there is never a situation when racing a train is worth it. The odds are always stacked against you.

Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein formerly served as director of transportation safety at NSC.

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