A Reduction in Grade Crossing Accidents

By Larry Henley

The nation’s railroad regulator, the Federal Railroad Administration, started publicizing grade crossing accident statistics through its Office of Safety Analysis in 1975. Since 1975 through May 2009, 213,814 grade crossing accidents have been reported by the railroads nationally which resulted in 20,421 fatalities and 79,469 injuries to Americans. During this same period 22,290 crossing accidents have occurred in Texas, the state with the most railroad mileage, resulting in 2,031 fatalities and 9,122 injuries.

In 1994 there were 626 fatalities reported from crossing accidents. The U.S. Department of Transportation in cooperation with the railroad industry established a goal to reduce grade crossing fatalities by 50% over the following decade. At the end of 2003, fatalities fell 47% to 332 and the number of collisions declined by 39%.

By the number of crossing accident fatalities rose 11% to 368 in 2004. In a statement to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in July 2005, Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported “most of the success in the FRA realized was due to picking low hanging fruit and additional gains will be harder to achieve!”

Mead told the Committee that much of this decline was due to the closure of about 41,000 railroad crossings along with the installation of automatic warning devices at about 4,000 railroad crossings which had a high probability for collisions. At $100,000 per crossing required to install automatic crossing signals, this represents approximately an expenditure of $400 million, all paid by taxpayer dollars. Mead also noted that nearly half of all crossing accidents that occurred were at crossings with active warning devices.

An audit of these statistics also revealed 21% of serious crossing collisions were not being reported – let alone in a timely way. 115 of 543 serious grade crossing collisions which occurred between 5/1/2003 and 12/31/2004 in which 116 people were killed, had not been reported to the FRA’s database.

Almost all of the information used to analyze crossing accidents comes directly from the railroad itself! These reports attribute 91% of all train-vehicle collisions to the “recklessness or inattentive behavior of the driver.” Recent court decisions and settlements have indicated differently. But, the law is quite simple: If you can see or hear a train, you must yield the right of way.

The investigation of crossing accidents must be upgraded. The FRA was criticized because they investigated only nine out of 3,045 crossing collisions in 2004, and 47 of the 376 serious crossing collisions between 2000 and 2004. Grade crossing laws must be enforced along with the requirement that train whistles are sounded sufficiently in advance to warn motorists.

Much more work is needed for this to be a true success story.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Larry Henley. Mr. Henley is a retired railroad employee and currently spends his time working to promote railroad safety. He is not employed by Bailey & Galyen.