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Railroad executives and, to a large extent, federal railroad safety regulators classify crashes between trains and cars or trucks at grade-level crossings as a form of trespassing. The basic assumption is that drivers could and should have stayed out of the path of the onrushing locomotive. If the driver’s error or disregard of warnings to stop for the train did not exactly merit death or severe injury, the official thinking goes, the person in the smaller vehicle certainly bears the most of the responsibility for the terrible consequences.

As a Virginia railroad injury lawyer and wrongful death attorney who has helped victims of railroad crossing accidents for more than 20 years, however, I know that the poor design and maintenance of intersections between roads and train tracks for Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern create many dangerous situations. A large part of the problem appears to stem from the way drivers actually see moving trains and the way that track designers assume that human vision operates.

Evidence of this comes from a study performed in Australia. Researchers took volunteers to a railroad crossing on flat ground and long lines of sight in both directions. While almost all study participants were able to spot trains coming from nearly a mile away, just 4 in 10 came close to accurately judging the speed at which the trains were traveling. Since even heavily loaded freight trains can reach speeds of 90 mph and faster on open track, miscalculating that rate of travel can quickly put a driver in peril.

This problem of poor speed estimation is compounded by the design of the viewers’ eyes. As one human factors expert noted recently, drivers on a collision course with a train never perceive the distance between their vehicle and the approaching train to be closing because the image of the train enters at a fixed angle. You can read the full explanation for that phenomenon here. The psychologist, who specializes in the interaction of visual acuity and reaction time, writes in that same essay that drivers can easily miss or ignore the most commonly used devices deployed to warn of trains entering railroad crossing zones.

The placement of flashing lights and crossbucks can make them difficult to see when the sun is rising or setting. Trees, bushes and grass are often allowed to grow until they obscure the signs and signals from most angles. Lights that activate too early prompt drivers to start assuming they can speed across the tracks with little danger. Correcting for each environmental variable and the risk-taking of every driver probably is not possible, but railroad corporations and track owners must work to eliminate as many chances for making potentially fatal miscalculations of risks as possible.

At a minimum, then, all heavily trafficked railroad crossings should be equipped with automatic gates. Fences along rights-of-way near crossings will also do much to protect pedestrians. The cost of installing and servicing such barriers is not negligible, especially on private property, but how much is human life and safety worth?


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