USDOT Launches Railroad Crossing Safety Campaign

The U.S. Department of Transportation has kicked off its annual “Stop. Trains Can’t.” public outreach campaign, which will run through November 8. This national $6.6 million safety campaign – which will use radio, digital, and social media to communicate its safety message – seeks to educate motorists not to gamble with their lives at rail grade crossings.

[Above photo by the NTSB.]

In particular, the campaign plans to highlight “target high-risk highway-railway crossings” in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas as part of its outreach effort.

FRA’s Ronald Batory

Two USDOT agencies – the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – are in charge of this campaign.

“Evolving technology will continue to help reduce fatalities at our nation’s rail grade crossings, but driver awareness is paramount to bringing down the fatality rate,” noted Ronald Batory, FRA administrator, in a statement.

“A train can’t swerve out of the way or stop on a dime,” added James Owens, NHTSA’s deputy administrator.

James Owens

“We all have a responsibility to be safe while on the highways, and that means drivers must always look carefully before driving across train tracks and obey any warning signals or lowered crossing gate arms,” he said. “Trying to beat a train could cost you your life.”

Over the past five years, the USDOT said 798 people have died while trying to drive across railroad tracks. In 2019 alone, 126 people died and 635 people suffered injuries at railroad crossings. Of those killed, about 75 percent died after a motor vehicle went around lowered crossing gate arms.

Railroad crossing safety is getting more focus of late as a transportation issue.

In November 2019, the FRA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking or NPRM that requires 40 states and the District of Columbia to develop and implement highway-rail grade crossing action plans.

Photo by NTSB

That NPRM also mandates 10 states previously required to develop highway-rail grade crossing action plans by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 to update their plans and to submit reports to the agency describing actions they have taken to implement them.

And though railroad grade crossing incidents are the second leading cause of all rail-related deaths in the United States, according to FRA data,  there may not be enough funding available to make such crossings safer – an issue discussed during a House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing in February.

Rep. DeFazio

“States and localities have tried to address some of the grade crossing issues they face but have a hard time keeping up – often with little financial support from the federal government or railroads,” explained Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House T&I committee, at that hearing. “While the railroads advocate for closing more grade crossings, these projects often aren’t realistic solutions in densely populated communities that have been built around rail lines.”

Rep. DeFazio noted that grade crossing separation projects could help increase capacity and free-flowing movement for both trains and vehicles, while reducing vehicle-train conflict and increasing safety. Yet they can be expensive, he emphasized – and with only $245 million available nationwide in 2020 for projects through the Section 130 Railway-Highway Grade Crossing Program, “many states struggle to cover the costs of multi-million dollar projects.”

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