Safety Study

Safety at Passive Grade Crossings

Volume 1: Analysis

NTSB Number: SS-98-02
NTIS Number: PB98-917004

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 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.