Three Deadly Myths about Train-Crossing Wrecks

By John Fabry

When someone is killed in a train-crossing accident, people often wonder how it could have happened.  Why didn’t the driver see and stop for the train?  This question arises because of commonly held but incorrect beliefs about train crossings: deadly myths.

Myth # 1:  Railroad-Crossing Accidents Are Rare

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) defines a “Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Incident” as any impact between a rail user and a highway user at a “crossing site.” A train hitting a car, truck or motorcycle at a crossing would be a reportable “incident.”

A total of 2,405 such incidents were reported to the FRA nationally in 2008, resulting in 289 deaths and many more injuries.  Texas was an unfortunate leader in this area, with 228 collisions (nearly 10% of the total) and 17 deaths occurring in the state.  As you consider these statistics, keep in mind that the accuracy of the FRA’s information depends upon the nation’s railroads’ data collection and reporting processes.  The FRA admits, “It is not possible to identify reportable events that were omitted from a railroad’s submission.”  In other words, the numbers could actually be even higher.

Myth #2: Drivers Can Always See an Approaching Train

Trees, vegetation, buildings and other structures along a road leading to a crossing can block a driver’s view of an approaching train. If the road intersects railroad tracks at a skewed angle, the driver might not be able to see an approaching train.  Where more than one track is present at a crossing, a parked locomotive and/or railcars on one track can obstruct the view of an approaching train on the other track.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recognized the importance of site distance to crossing safety at least as far back as 1954, stating that “Site distance is a primary consideration at crossings without signals or gates.  The condition at a railroad grade crossing is comparable to that of intersecting highways where a corner site triangle must be kept clear of obstructions.”  Drivers must not only be able to see an approaching train, but must have enough time to stop before reaching the track.

Myth #3: Crossing Collisions Occur Because the Driver Broke the Law or Tried to Beat the Train

Drivers in Texas approaching a railroad crossing equipped only with the familiar “Railroad Crossing” sign, known as a “crossbuck,” are required to yield the right-of-way to a train that is in “hazardous proximity” to the crossing.  Although it might seem obvious, Texas courts have recognized that drivers must have a reasonable opportunity to learn of a train in hazardous proximity to a crossing before they can be expected to yield the right-of-way. As at least one court has noted, “[e]very railroad crossing is a place of danger.”  However, Texas law recognizes that some crossings are “extra-hazardous.”  A crossing is extra-hazardous if it is “so dangerous that persons using ordinary care cannot pass over it in safety” without some warning other than the crossbuck sign.

A crossing may be classified as extra-hazardous if a permanent condition (such as a building) or a temporary condition (such as parked railcars) obstructs a driver’s view of an approaching train.  The railroad has a duty to use extraordinary measures to warn drivers of an approaching train at extra-hazardous crossings.  Extraordinary measures might include gates, flashing light signals, bells or a railroad employee waiving a flag.  The railroad may be held responsible if the failure to provide such warnings results in a collision with a vehicle attempting to cross its tracks.  In other words, a crossing accident may occur not because the driver was careless, but because the railroad was careless in failing to provide adequate warnings at an extra-hazardous crossing.

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