In late February, officials of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced the first step in a new campaign designed to increase enforcement and safety awareness at grade crossings. Ironically, less than two weeks later, an Amtrak train crashed into a tractor-trailer in Halifax, North Carolina injuring 55 passengers.
Eyewitnesses reported that the driver backed up several times over the tracks as he struggled to negotiate a tricky left turn. When he heard the warning horn of the oncoming train, he bolted from his truck. The impact blasted his vehicle into thousands of pieces as the train cars flew off the tracks eventually landing on their sides.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials still are investigating.
From 2010 to 2012, train/tractor- trailer incidents at highway grade crossings occurred more than 300 times per year or 16.2 percent of all highway-rail incidents (automobiles accounted for almost 46 percent and other large trucks accounted for 7.4 percent), according to FRA statistics. Total grade crossing incidents for all vehicles and pedestrians reached 2,262 with 250 fatalities. And although FRA and railroad companies continue to increase grade-crossing safety through public awareness campaigns, technology, enforcement and infrastructure upgrades, many experts suggest that the major responsibility for train/truck crashes rests squarely in the hands of truck drivers.
"The answer is better truck driver training and stricter licensing requirements for CDLs," says Russell Quimby, an Omaha-based consultant with over 22 years of railroad and rapid transit accident investigation experience as an investigator-in-charge for the NTSB. "Many times the truck driver is tired, makes a bad choice or is trying to beat the train. Trucks have a lot more flexibility than a train - the train can't stop – but all the driver has to do is stop and make sure that a train isn't coming."
"The problem with truck drivers is not that they go around the gates," says Jeffrey Buckholz, president of Buckholz Traffic in Jacksonville, Florida, a practicing engineer with 37 years of hands-on experience in the traffic engineering field. "They typically get caught on the tracks." He says that truck drivers will sometimes cross tracks but then find that they don't have enough room to clear it as traffic in front of them backs up. Buckholz, who is an expert in crossing infrastructure notes that you can design gates to prevent vehicles from crossing when a train approaches – common in Europe – but that doesn’t help truck drivers who, unlike some automobile drivers, usually don't breach the gates. He adds that the rule in the United States is that between the time a crossing warning bell sounds and the train rushes past can be as little as 20 seconds. "It can be longer, but it can't be less than that. This doesn't give a driver a lot of time to clear the tracks if traffic has backed up… We can increase the warning time and that can help."
To Scott Turner, president of Scott L. Turner Consulting, in Blairstown, New Jersey, preventing truck/truck crashes comes down to two issues: Inattentiveness or a driver's poor judgment about the length of his trailer. "He thinks he has enough space to clear the tracks but then realizes, too late, that he doesn’t and winds up getting his tail-end clipped by the train."
Turner bases his beliefs on more has more than 25 years in the field of commercial vehicle crashes including 16 years as the CEO of a national crash/incident response company. He has investigated or responded to more than 1,000 tractor-trailer crashes and 200 cargo tank truck crashes and incidents.
Turner warns about what he calls 'inattention blindness' where a driver may be using a hands-free phone – according to laws that disallow holding a phone – but may still be missing dangers around him. He makes it a personal practice to never talk on a phone while driving.
He promotes the idea that carriers can incentivize drivers to drive more safely by offering rewards for incident-free miles but it must be accompanied by training so drivers understand what behaviors cause crashes. "One thing that can be very helpful is for a motor carrier to send letters to drivers' wives about a company's new safety policy, say, about staying off cell phones." When she reads it, she can reinforce the idea with her husband, says Turner. "Things like that, in conjunction with other incremental steps, can really make a solid system that helps improve safety… If you can reduce accidents by 20 percent, say, that's money that goes directly to the bottom line as well as saving lives."