National Transportation Safety Board
Office of Public Affairs
Washington, D.C. - A National Transportation Safety Board safety study has determined that a systematic approach that includes replacement of crossings with bridges, closure, installation of active warning devices, improved signage, and intelligent transportation systems technology may decrease the number of accidents and injuries at passive grade crossings.
Passive grade crossings do not have flashing lights, bells, or gates that signal motorists of approaching trains. They have only traffic signs such as crossbucks, advance warning signs, and pavement markings, that tell the driver that a crossing is present. About three quarters of all grade crossings in the United States are passive.
For this study, the Safety Board investigated 60 accidents at passive grade crossings that occurred between December 1995 and August 1996. The sample of accidents was not intended to be statistically representative of the entire population of accidents at passive grade crossings during the study period, but rather to illustrate a range of passive grade crossing accidents.
Although there is less highway and train traffic at passive crossings than at crossings with lights and gates, passive crossings accounted for 54 percent of all grade crossing accidents in 1996 and 60 percent of all grade crossings fatalities in that year. According to the Safety Board, the accident rate at public passive crossings is about 7 times greater than at active crossings.
The Board determined that replacing crossings with bridges and or closure of passive crossings is the most effective means to eliminate accidents between highway vehicles and trains. The second most effective method to improve safety at these crossings is to equip the crossings with active warning devices that warn motorists of an oncoming train.
The Safety Board also concluded that safety improvements as modest as installing and enforcing stop signs at passive crossings can decrease the number of accidents. Stop signs would provide consistent information, instruction, and regulation to the motorists.
As a result of this safety study, the Board issued recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation; the Federal Highway Administration; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the Federal Railroad Administration; the States; Operation Lifesaver, Inc.; the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators; and six private organizations and associations.
The 19 recommendations included:
• Providing full funding within three years for the installation of stop and stop ahead signs at passive grade crossings;
• Developing and implementing a field test program for in-vehicle safety and advisory warning systems, variable message signs, and other active devices;
• Ensuring that the identification number is properly posted at all grade crossings;
• Determining within two years governmental oversight responsibility for safety at private highway-rail grade crossings and ensuing that traffic control on these crossings meets the standards within the Manual on Uniform traffic Control Devices; and
• Ensuring that questions on safety at passive grade crossings are included in every version of the State's written driver examination.
The Safety Board's complete report is available on the NTSB Web site; printed copies (order #PB-98-917004) will be available from the National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, Virginia 22161. The NTIS telephone number is (703) 487-4650.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause
of transportation accidents, promoting transportation safety, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families.