Trains and Automobiles

It has been a long time since the automobile supplanted the train as the land transportation method of choice. But interaction between trains and automobiles continues and, sadly, American drivers have proven they are not all that good at it. As evidence, in the United States a person or a vehicle is struck by a train about every two hours.

The busy holiday season and inclement winter weather can add to the danger. To combat this hazard, a safety organization called Operation Lifesaver, a national non-profit safety education group seeking to eliminate deaths and injuries at railroad crossings and along railroad rights of way, has specific recommendations that can help keep you and your family safe.

First, when battling winter conditions, slow down, especially when weather and/or visibility are poor. Snow-covered or gridlocked roads hamper safety. Watch for advance warning signs (most often a yellow sign with "R X R") indicating railroad tracks across the road ahead. Be prepared to slow down or stop well before the crossing, because compromised road conditions could result in longer stopping distances than normal. Trains are wider than their tracks, so if you stop near or at a crossing, be sure you are at least 15 feet from the tracks.

Trains also have exceptionally long stopping distances because immensely heavy train cars riding on steel wheels will take a substantial period of time to come to a halt even after the engineer sees an object in its path. Leave extra space between your vehicle and the crossing, which is often marked with a crossbuck symbol, flashing red lights or a gate, so if a car nudges you from behind, it won't push you into the crossing.

Look and listen. Bad weather and dirty car windows can severely limit your vision. Clean off all snow and ice that might block vision before you drive, including snow on the roof and hood that can slide or blow onto your windows or those of cars behind you. Turn your head to see around mirrors, passengers and any visual obstructions inside your car. Don't rely on sight alone, either. Listen for the sound of a train, even though it may be muffled by snow and obscured by the sound of your radio and the heater.

Each year dozens of drivers are killed needlessly because they chose to ignore warning lights and crossing gates. Don't take a chance by driving around lowered gates you think are "malfunctioning." They might know something you don't; namely, the arrival of a train is imminent. 

When you are waiting at a railroad crossing, be aware that the passing of one railroad train doesn't mean another is not right behind it. Watch for the "second train" whether it is behind the first or coming from the opposite direction. Always look both ways before proceeding.

Finally, if your vehicle gets stuck on a railroad crossing, don't stay with it in an effort to get it going again. Your car can be replaced; your life can't. Instead, quickly exit the vehicle, move away from the tracks, and call 911 or the railroad number displayed on the sign at the crossing. Mention any nearby landmarks, particularly the "DOT" number displayed at the crossing if you can see it.

Operation Lifesaver's 3,000 certified presenters throughout the U.S. and Canada are trained to give free safety talks to community groups, schools, school bus drivers, truck drivers and community organizations to raise awareness of the need for caution around railroad tracks and trains. More information can be found at the Operation Livesaver Web site. To schedule a free Operation Lifesaver presentation, which might liven up your next potluck, or for information about becoming a volunteer, contact your state's coordinator through the Web site or call the national office at (800) 537-6224.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human condition. He frequently takes the train.