Safety Study - Safety at Passive Grade Crossings Volume 1: Analysis

NTSB Number: SS-98-02
NTIS Number: PB98-917004
Adopted July 21, 1998
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Executive Summary

More than 4,000 accidents have occurred at the Nation's active and passive grade crossings each year from 1991 through 1996. Many of the accidents at active crossings have involved highway vehicle drivers who did not comply with train-activated warning devices installed at the crossings. This failure to comply often includes driver actions resulting from a deliberate decision, such as driving around a lowered crossing gate arm or ignoring flashing lights. Drivers at passive crossings are not provided warnings from train-activated devices; consequently, they must rely on a system of grade crossing signs and pavement markings, passive devices, that are designed to warn drivers only of the presence of a crossing. No element of this passive system changes to alert drivers to an oncoming train. Further, the effectiveness of the passive system is influenced by characteristics of the physical layout of the crossing, such as an adequate view of the area surrounding the crossing (sight distance) and roadway alignment, that affect the information given to an approaching motorist regarding an upcoming hazard.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 4,054 accidents in 1996 that involved highway vehicles at grade crossings; 54 percent (2,208) of those accidents occurred at passive grade crossings. About 60 percent of the fatalities from all grade crossing accidents in 1996 (247 of 415 fatalities) were at passive grade crossings.

The cost to eliminate or upgrade passive grade crossings is very high. According to the General Accounting Office, the average cost of adding lights and gates in 1995 was $150,000 per grade crossing. The total cost to upgrade the 96,759 passive crossings on public roadways would be about $14 billion. Gates and lights do not completely eliminate the hazards present at crossings, and, therefore, sole reliance on them would reduce but not eliminate all the fatalities. The ultimate solution from a safety standpoint would be a standard grade separation, which usually involves construction of bridges or overpasses and costs an estimated $3 million per crossing. The large number of passive grade crossings, the high percentage of fatalities that occur at passive grade crossings, and the cost to eliminate or upgrade passive grade crossings prompted the Safety Board to conduct this study to identify some of the common causes for accidents at passive grade crossings, and to identify less costly remedies to improve safety at passive crossings not scheduled for closure or upgrade.

For this study, the Safety Board investigated 60 grade crossing accidents that occurred between December 1995 and August 1996. The Safety Board selected for study accidents involving a collision between a train and a highway vehicle occurring at a passive grade crossing, wherein the highway vehicle was sufficiently damaged to require towing. The sample of accidents is 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. A probable cause was determined for each accident in the study. Overall, driver error was cited as the primary cause in 49 of the 60 accident cases: driver disregard for the stop sign in 13 cases, and the driver's failure to look for a train in 16 cases. In 7 of the remaining 11 cases, the probable cause was determined to be related to roadway conditions that affected the driver's ability to detect the presence of a passive crossing or an oncoming train; roadway and track conditions were cited as the probable cause in 3 of the 11 cases.

In May 1997, the Safety Board convened a 2-day public forum in Jacksonville, Florida, to gather information about issues affecting safety at passive grade crossings. Witnesses included experts from the railroad industry; law enforcement; research groups; Operation Lifesaver; and Federal, State, and local government agencies. Those involved in grade crossing accidents, both highway vehicle occupants and traincrews, testified about their personal experiences. In addition, representatives from Canada and Italy discussed passive grade crossing issues and experiences in their countries.

Based on the results of the Safety Board's accident investigations and the information gathered at the public forum, the safety issues discussed in the report include the following:

  • the adequacy of existing warning systems to alert the driver to the presence of a passive crossing and an oncoming train;
  • roadway and track conditions that affect a driver's ability to detect the presence of an oncoming train;
  • behavioral factors that affect a driver's ability to detect the presence of an oncoming train;
  • the adequacy of existing driver education material regarding the dangers of passive grade crossings and driver actions required;
  • the need for a systematic and uniform approach to passive grade crossing safety; and
  • the need for improved signage at private passive crossings.

The issue of safety at passive grade crossings is complex; therefore, Volume 1 (NTSB/SS-98/02) of the report first discusses the problems drivers encounter at passive crossings, then presents the Board's analysis, conclusions, and recommendations. Volume 2 (NTSB/SS-98/03) of the report contains case summaries of the 60 accidents investigated by the Safety Board for this study.

As a result of this study, safety recommendations were issued 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 Motor Vehicle Administrators; the American Automobile Association; the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; the Professional Truck Drivers Institute of America; the Advertising Council, Inc.; the Association of American Railroads; the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association; and the American Public Transit Association.

Recommendations

As a result of this safety study, the National Transportation Safety Board made the following recommendations:

To the Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation:

Provide full funding within 3 years for the installation of stop and stop ahead signs at passive grade crossings. (H-98-28)

Provide Federal highway safety incentive grants to States to advance innovative pilot programs designed to increase enforcement of passive grade crossing traffic laws. (H-98-29)

Develop, in conjunction with Operation Lifesaver, Inc., the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the American Automobile Association, and the Professional Truck Drivers Institute of America, an appropriate training module specific to safety at passive crossings to be included in the organizations' highway safety education programs. (H-98-30)

Develop, in conjunction with the Advertising Council, Inc., a media campaign to inform motorists that stop signs will be installed at many of the Nation's passive grade crossings, and to inform motorists of the importance of obeying stop signs at passive grade crossings. (H-98-31)

Develop and implement a field test program for in-vehicle safety and advisory warning systems, variable message signs, and other active devices; then ensure that the private entities who are developing advanced technology applications modify those applications as appropriate for use at passive grade crossings. Following the modifications, take action to implement use of the advanced technology applications. (I-98-1)

Establish a timetable for the completion of standards development for applications of intelligent transportation systems at highway–rail grade crossings, and act expeditiously to complete the standards. (I-98-2)

Determine within 2 years, in conjunction with the States, governmental oversight responsibility for safety at private highway–rail grade crossings and ensure that traffic control on these crossings meets the standards within the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. (H-98-32)

Develop a standardized hazard index or a safety prediction formula that will include all variables proven by research or experience to be useful in evaluating highway–rail grade crossings, and require the States to use it. (H-98-33)

To the Federal Railroad Administration:

Modify the Grade Crossing Inventory System to include information on (1) the sight distances available to a motorist, and (2) the presence of curves on the roadway and on the tracks. Direct the States to include these data as a part of the regularly scheduled updates of the database. (R-98-41)

Encourage the railroads to ensure that the U.S. Department of Transportation identification number is properly posted at all grade crossings. (R-98-42)

To the States:

Install, within 2 years of receiving Federal funding, stop signs at all passive grade crossings unless a traffic engineering analysis determines that installation of a stop sign would reduce the level of safety at a crossing. Crossings where conditions are such that the installation of stop signs would reduce the level of safety should be upgraded with active warning devices or should be eliminated. (H-98-34)

Determine within 2 years, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, governmental oversight responsibility for safety at private highway–rail grade crossings and ensure that traffic control on these crossings meets the standards within the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. (H-98-35)

Evaluate periodically, or at least every 5 years, all passive grade crossings to determine compliance with existing guidelines of the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials regarding sight distances, angle of intersection where the roadway meets the tracks, curves on the roadway or tracks, and nearby roadway intersections. For those crossings determined not to be in compliance with the guidelines, initiate activity to bring these crossings into compliance, wherever possible. Where passive crossings cannot be brought into compliance for reasons such as permanent obstructions at the stop line, target those crossings for installation of active warning devices, grade separation, or closure. (H-98-36)

Ensure that questions on safety at passive grade crossings are included in every version of the State's written driver examinations. (H-98-37)

To Operation Lifesaver, Inc., the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the American Automobile Association, and the Professional Truck Drivers Institute of America:

Include in training manuals, presentations, and printed educational material information about (1) the need for full driver attention at passive grade crossings, (2) the fact that trains are often moving faster than they appear to be from a distance, and (3) the ways in which the physical characteristics of the crossing affect the driver's ability to see an approaching train at a passive crossing. (H-98-38)

Develop, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, an appropriate training module specific to safety at passive grade crossings to be included in the organizations' highway safety education programs. (H-98-39)

To the Advertising Council, Inc.:

Develop, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, a media campaign to inform motorists that stop signs will be installed at many of the Nation's passive grade crossings, and to inform motorists of the importance of obeying stop signs at passive grade crossings. (H-98-40)

To the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Association of American Railroads, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, and the American Public Transit Administration:

Participate and cooperate fully with the development of intelligent transportation systems that will be able to alert drivers to an oncoming train at passive grade crossings. (I-98-3)

To the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association:

Encourage your member railroads to ensure that the U.S. Department of Transportation identification number is properly posted at all grade crossings. (R-98-43)