Fatalities and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings in the U.S. are a major safety concern. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in recent years roughly 300 fatalities, 900 injuries and 2,400 accidents have occurred annually.
Grade crossing crashes are much more severe than other highway crashes. Based on NHTSA and FRA statistics, Operation Lifesaver reports that a motorist is almost 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in a collision involving another motor vehicle.
There are approximately 140,000 public at-grade highway-rail crossings in the U.S. The challenge to local street and highway agencies is to accurately inventory these crossings and to cooperate with federal and state agencies, other jurisdictions and railroad companies to provide as safe an approach and crossing as possible.
Analysis of railroad accident reports indicates that the vast majority of collisions are caused by motorists and are preventable, so the focus should be on:
• Educating the public regarding safety at crossings
• Engineering solutions (such as closing unneeded crossings and upgrading warning devices) that prevent collisions
• Enforcement of applicable traffic laws
In addition to existing mandates for Crossbuck and advance warning signs at all crossings, and requirements for RRX pavement marking symbols on paved roads with speed limits over 40 mph, the 2009 MUTCD details new requirements for highway-rail grade crossing traffic control including the addition of:
• A YIELD or STOP sign (together with a Crossbuck sign) at passive crossings (compliance date: 12/31/19)
• Stop lines on paved roadways at active crossings
• A NO TRAIN HORN sign in established quiet zones to alert motorists that trains may be present even though no train horn is heard.
In addition, all traffic signs—including those at highway-rail grade crossings—are subject to the federal Minimum Retroreflectivity Ruling. Agencies have until January of 2012 to implement and use an assessment or management method to maintain traffic sign retroreflectivity at or above the established minimum levels, and until January of 2015 to replace regulator, warning and ground-mounted guide signs (except street name signs) which fail to meet the established minimum levels.
Federal funding is consistently made available for implementation of recommended safety measures.
Section 130 allocates money to states specifically for eliminating hazards at public highway-rail grade crossings.
• $220 million per year in 2012, 2013 and 2014
• 50% of the state’s apportionment must be set aside for the installation of protective devices at railway crossings
• Federal share is 90%, but the law allows a state to fund signs, pavement markings and a few other items at 100% if the state chooses to do so
Signs and markings are low-cost safety improvements with a high benefit-to-cost ratio in terms of crash prevention. High visibility signs and markings offer drivers more time to react to the presence of trains and obey traffic warning devices.
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