Every three hours there’s an accident at a rail crossing in North America. Every day someone dies from these accidents. The primary approach to preventing these accidents and deaths has been installing static signs, flashing lights, bells, and gates. The first such device was installed in 1913 and is shown in the picture below. As you can see, not much has changed in over 100 years.
The deployment of flashing lights, bells, and gates and other accident preventative measures like grade separation, driver education, and enforcement, correlate to a steady decline of accidents at rail crossings. Statistics kept by the US Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) since 1980 show an impressive downward trend for nearly 30 years as shown in the figure below.
But a new disturbing trend has emerged in the past 10 years. Accidents are no longer decreasing. In fact, the data reveal a reversing trend, and accidents at rail crossings are increasing. What’s going on? With more than 10 years of data showing this reversal, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that existing approaches to reduce accidents are no longer working, or at least their effectiveness is diminishing.
The true explanation for this trend is probably quite complex, but I have an initial hypothesis. My hypothesis is that there are 4 types of drivers at rail crossings and that FLBG are effective at reducing accidents for one type of driver, but not the other three types. I’ll explain what I mean next.
Understanding the Four Types of Drivers at Rail Crossings
I believe there are 4 types of drivers at rail crossings, defined below. I’m not the first to
• Driver Type 1 – Attentive, emotionally stable, law-abiding drivers. These drivers consistently observe rail crossing warning devices and perform the correct driving action. Existing rail crossing warning systems are generally effective for these drivers, and the widescale deployment of these systems is why we’ve observed the significant decrease in accidents until 2008. For the rest of this blog I focus on the next three driver types.
• Driver Type 2 – Impatient drivers. These drivers know that a train is approaching and can see the warning systems but are willing to break driving laws and try to “beat the train” anyway.
• Driver Type 3 – Distracted, impaired, and/or complacent (D-I-C) drivers. Yes, I realize how this sounds phonetically – it’s intentional. These drivers are inattentive to their surroundings due to distraction (e.g., texting and driving) or complacency (e.g., they drive across the same railway tracks daily without encountering a train and no longer take caution at the crossing), or who are impaired and temporarily lack proper driving judgment.
• Driver Type 4 – Suicidal drivers. These drivers typically and tragically park their vehicles on tracks, waiting for a train to arrive.
I believe that if we want to continue driving the accident trend downward, we need to improve our understanding of Driver Types 2-4, diagnose the root cause of accidents that involve them, and implement new approaches for reducing collisions that address these root causes.
Understanding the Three Drivers
Impatient, D-I-C, and suicidal drivers can be categorized along two axes of intentionality: their intention to violate rail crossing warning systems and their intention to cause bodily harm. This categorization can help identify the root causes of accidents involving each type of driver.
• Type 2 – Impatient drivers: intentionally violate warning systems but are not intentionally causing harm to themselves. Unknown and unexpected traffic delays at rail crossings cause accidents involving impatient drivers. They are usually in a hurry and take risks at rail crossings because they don’t know when or how long they will be delayed by a train. Some will even drive around or through physical barriers to beat a train. Ultimately human error and poor driving decisions are the root cause of these accidents.
• Type 3 – D-I-C drivers: unintentionally violate warning systems but are not intentionally causing harm to themselves. The inability to assign appropriate attentiveness to the driving task causes these accidents. Again, human error and poor driving decisions are the root cause of these accidents. For example, drivers allow themselves to be distracted by phones, choose to drive while intoxicated or let their guard down at familiar rail crossings.
• Type 4 – Suicidal drivers: intentionally violate warning systems to intentionally cause harm to themselves. Depression and anxiousness are common markers of suicidal drivers and mental health and psychological issues are often at the root of their driving actions. As an engineer, I am not in a position to explain these issues and root causes. Although some technologies can help prevent these accidents, most engineering and enforcement accident countermeasures at rail crossings are not designed to address the underlying mental health issues.
According to detailed accident records maintained by the FRA between 2014 and 2018 and as shown in the figure below, 26% of vehicle accidents at rail crossings were caused by impatient drivers (Type 2), 72% were caused by D-I-C drivers (Type 3), and 2% were suicides (Type 4).
Preventative Measures to Reduce Collisions at Rail Crossings
There are several approaches for reducing collisions at rail crossings, briefly described below and listed in rough order of cost.
• Predictive information ($) – new technologies are available to predict traffic delays at rail crossings. These technologies can deliver this information to drivers through roadside signs, integrate into traffic management centers to automatically adjust traffic signals along a corridor when a crossing is blocked, and integrate into computer-aided dispatch software for emergency responders. Click here to learn more.
• Barriers, lights, and stripes ($) – this approach uses bollards and medians along the centerline of a road to prevent vehicles from driving around rail crossing gates, pavement markings to improve roadway delineation at rail crossings to discourage drivers from accidentally turning onto railway tracks, and LED lighting and in-pavement lights to enhance the visibility of the rail crossing when there’s a train. Click here for a presentation by Volpe Center to get additional details.
• Education ($-$$) – this approach involves generating awareness about the risks of rail crossings and informing/reminding drivers about safe behaviors. Operation Lifesaver is a leading organization
• Enforcement ($-$$) – traditionally this involved police officers ticketing drivers at the rail crossing. New photo-enforcement approaches are being tested that use “red-light camera” technologies to capture license plates for violators and sending them a warning and informational letter in the mail. Click here to see a presentation on a pilot conducted by the City of Orlando.
• Traffic operations ($$-$$$) – traffic signal pre-emption is a complex process that integrates the rail crossing warning system with a nearby traffic signal. The MUTCD recommends traffic signal preemption when the rail crossing is within 200 feet to allow traffic queues at an intersection to clear the track when a train is approaching. The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) published a recommended practice, available here.
• Infrastructure ($$$$-$$$$$) – grade separation, rail crossing closure, and rail relocation are extreme options that can be quite costly and are sometimes infeasible due to limited land availability.
Traditional approaches to improving safety at rail crossings like flashing lights, bells, and gates are ineffective at reducing accidents with Type 2, 3, and 4 drivers while grade separation is often cost-prohibitive or infeasible. Innovative approaches like predictive information should be considered as a low-cost option to address these accidents.