Alerting drivers to the dangers of highway-rail crossings should be a priority for fleets
Trucking has once again been the recipient of a black eye because of the actions of a truck driver who apparently attempted to race a train through a highway-rail crossing. This most recent event occurred in a small town outside of Chicago, and resulted in the deaths of 11 passengers on an Amtrak train after it collided with the flatbed tractor-trailer combination.
Although there are conflicting accounts of the exact sequence of events, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has made a number of statements that indicate the driver of the truck was in the process of making the crossing after the flashing signals were activated and the automatic gates were down.
While the complete investigation could take several months, charges against the driver could be filed at any time. He apparently had an extensive record of violations and a suspended license. At the time of the accident, he was driving on a special permit issued by a judge.
Although the investigation is by no means complete, from the information we have so far, this crash could have been prevented. The crossing was equipped with an active warning system, which includes gates, lights, and bells.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), grade crossing deaths are down one-third from five years ago. But of the reportable crashes last year, 74% can be attributed to the inattention or impatience of the motor vehicle operator.
How big a problem is this for trucking? We don't know exactly how many large trucks are involved in such incidents because the FRA lumps all trucks together - from pickups to tractor-trailers - when it collects the data. We do know one thing, however. When a large truck is involved, the results can be catastrophic.
What can we do to prevent these crashes? As a first step, fleets should review highway-rail grade crossing safety with their drivers. For help in getting the message across, you can contact Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit public education program dedicated to reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities at railroad intersections. The Alexandria, Va.-based group can be reached by phone at 800-537-6224, or on the Internet at www.oli.org.
As with most safety issues, the focus becomes much more acute after a spectacular crash such as the one in Illinois. Congress has already called for safety improvements at highway-rail crossings. And since the driver in the Illinois incident had a less-than-desirable record, Congress may be inclined to mandate stricter requirements for commercial vehicle drivers. There have also been calls for action against companies that don't provide specific training about highway-rail crossings.
But solutions focusing on factors other than the driver should also be considered. For example, visibility at crossings and of the trains themselves could be improved; more crossings could be closed; and cities and states could be allowed to set speed limits for trains that pass through them.
The problem of highway-rail grade crossings can only be solved if people on all sides of the issue get involved. We can do our part by making sure that drivers are well trained and understand the dangers associated with all highway-rail grade crossings.
Let's make every effort to have "zero" large-truck involvement in these senseless tragedies by encouraging our drivers to remember the Operation Lifesaver slogan: Look, listen, and live.