Railroad Crossing Accidents: Federal Government Spends Millions to Warn of Train Crash Danger


Railroad Crossing Accidents: Federal Government Spends Millions to Warn of Train Crash Danger

Train crashes, where a moving train collides with a car, truck, SUV, minivan, or other motor vehicle, don’t seem to be very likely, do they?  After all, there are all those warning signs and flashing lights.  Most people know to stop when a train is approaching.

So, fatal accidents between cars and trains are not a big worry here in Indiana and Illinois, right? Wrong. 

As we have discussed before, all too often in our part of the country people die or are seriously and permanently injured in collisions with moving trains.  Many of these crashes happen at railroad crossings.  For details, see our earlier posts including:

Feds Spending $7,000,000 in Public Awareness Campaign of Railroad Crossing Danger

Things are not getting safer, either.  Fatal railroad accidents keep happening.  Especially here in Indiana and Illinois, two of the most dangerous states for train crashes.

Just this month, the federal government broadcast it is spending $7,000,000 for a new public awareness drive educating the public of the dangers of railroad crossing accidents.   This $7 Million will target one specific driver: male drivers between the ages of 18 and 49 years.

The awareness campaign was announced by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) on January 13, 2017.  You can watch their first campaign announcement on YouTube.

Every Three Hours, Someone is Hit by a Train in the United States

How big is the danger of a fatal accident at a railroad crossing?  According to statistics compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration and NHTSA, there was a big jump in the number of fatal railroad crossing accidents in 2014.

In 2016, accidents happened so often that someone was hit by a train in a train crash here in the United States every three hours.  Every THREE HOURS – that’s shocking, isn’t it?

From U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx:

 “Too many people are still taking unnecessary risks and needlessly paying with their lives.  These deaths are preventable, and this ad campaign is a reminder for everyone that ignoring signage at railroad crossings or attempting to race or beat a train can have deadly consequences.”

Campaign in States with Highest Danger of Train Accidents: Indiana and Illinois

This new federal public awareness campaign is not going national.  It’s focusing only on states where there is a higher risk of serious or fatal railroad accidents.  These are the states where 75% of the railroad crossing accidents happened in 2015, and where the country’s 15 most dangerous railroad crossings are located.

Of course, the targeted states include Indiana and Illinois.  Other states include Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. 

Illinois was second only to California for fatal railroad crossing accidents at highway crossings in 2015.  Indiana was 5th in the country for the number of deaths at highway-rail crossings in the same year. 

For more information, see Operation Lifesaver’s Grade Crossing Fatalities by State (which compiles Federal Railroad Association data).

Right of Way Is With the Train at a Railroad Crossing

The key message of the new federal campaign is this:  drivers should always respect and give way to the railroad train.

The train will have the right of way under the law.  Why?  Because the train cannot turn left, or veer right, or quickly stop to avoid a crash at a railroad crossing.  Motor vehicles of all types are much more maneuverable than a train. 

This is true regardless of the kind of railroad crossing is in your path.  According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there are two kinds of railroad crossings:  active and passive.

Active Crossings

Most railroad crossings are “active crossings.”  These have those big automatic gates that block traffic.  Some active crossings have noise alarms like bells that sound when a train approaches.  Other active crossings have flashing lights to alert that a train will be entering the crossing.  Around 75% of railroad crossings in the United States are “active crossings.”

Passive Crossings

Some train crossings are “passive crossings.”  These are regularly used train crossings but they lack the warning technology of an active crossing.

Passive crossings have warning signs to alert drivers of the railroad crossing.  They may have painted warnings on the roadway itself: bright yellow alerts on the asphalt to let drivers (and other travelers) know of a railroad crossing.

Regardless of the kind of crossing, the law remains the same:  the train will have the right of way at the intersection of the train track and the roadway.  Drivers should be alert to the chance of a train entering that intersection at any time:  even if the alarms aren’t sounding and the gates aren’t down.

Train Crash Accidents at Railroad Crossings

We know that a tremendous amount of train traffic moves through Indiana and Illinois each day.  As detailed in our earlier post:

  • 40 freight railroads operate in Illinois covering 6,986 miles of rail;
  • 40 different freight railroads operate in Indiana, covering 4,075 rail miles; and
  • a map of the U.S. railway system demonstrates that the country’s rail system seems to converge here in Indiana and Illinois.

Our part of the country is the heart of the American railway system. Which means the danger of a serious or fatal railroad crossing accident is very high for drivers in Indiana and Illinois.

When a railroad crossing accident happens, the accident victim and his loved ones may have recourse against a variety of defendants for damages caused in the crash.  The right of way given to the train under traffic laws is not an inviolate shield to victims seeking justice for a train crash.

Train crashes involving a huge and heavy train and even the largest motor vehicle are usually serious incidents.  The faster the train is moving, the deadlier the crash.  These are horrific accidents and real tragedies.

In our next post, we’ll discuss train crashes and railroad crossing accidents in more detail.  Let’s be careful out there!

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