Three Deadly Myths About Train Accidents

After someone has been killed in a train crossing accident, people often wonder how it could happen. Why didn’t the driver see and stop for the train? This question arises out of commonly held but incorrect beliefs about train crossings: deadly myths.

Myth #1: Railroad Crossing Accidents are Rare

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

Last year, 2,373 crossing collisions were reported to the FRA nationally, resulting in 2867 deaths and many more injuries. Texas was an unfortunate leader in those statistics, with 228 collisions and 17 deaths in 2008. As you consider these statistics, keep in mind that the accuracy of the FRA’s information depends upon the data collection and reporting processes of the nation’s railroads. 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 rail cars on one track can obstruct the view of an approaching train on the other track.

The American Association of State Highway Officials recognized the importance of site distance to crossing safety as least as far back as 1954: “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 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 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, signal lights, 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.