Fatalities due to vehicle-train collisions down dramatically

As the Chicago Tribune recently remembered a train-school bus collision that killed 7 in 1995, I looked at the statistics on vehicle-train crash fatalities. The numbers have dropped quite a bit in recent decades:

All Highway-Rail Incidents at Public and Private Crossings, 1981-2014
Source: Federal Railroad Administration
Year Collisions Fatalities Injuries
1981 9,461 728 3,293
1982 7,932 607 2,637
1983 7,305 575 2,623
1984 7,456 649 2,910
1985 7,073 582 2,687
1986 6,513 616 2,458
1987 6,426 624 2,429
1988 6,617 689 2,589
1989 6,526 801 2,868
1990 5,715 698 2,407
1991 5,388 608 2,094
1992 4,910 579 1,975
1993 4,892 626 1,837
1994 4,979 615 1,961
1995 4,633 579 1,894
1996 4,257 488 1,610
1997 3,865 461 1,540
1998 3,508 431 1,303
1999 3,489 402 1,396
2000 3,502 425 1,219
2001 3,237 421 1,157
2002 3,077 357 999
2003 2,977 334 1,035
2004 3,077 372 1,092
2005 3,057 359 1,051
2006 2,936 369 1,070
2007 2,776 339 1,062
2008 2,429 290 992
2009 1,934 249 743
2010 2,051 260 887
2011 2,061 250 1,045
2012 1,985 230 975
2013* 2,098 232 972
2014* 2,287 269 849

* Preliminary statistics

Based on the number of articles I’ve read plus personal experience driving at-grade crossings in the Chicago area (which has many cars driving over railroads tracks each day – in 2014, Illinois had the second most train-vehicle collisions in the country), there are several factors behind this decrease:

  1. Improved signage at many at-grade crossings.
  2. More barriers at crossings that make it difficult to go around gates (longer gate arms) or cross into other lanes (barriers in the middle of the road).
  3. Eliminating at-grade crossings with more underpasses and bridges. These can be expensive but they reduce crashes as well as save time for drivers who don’t have to wait for trains to pass.

Yet, these changes can’t control the actions of drivers as the Chicago Tribune article noted:

But experts say safety is a matter of attitude and awareness, not just signals and signs. That’s the message of groups like Operation Lifesaver and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, an organization founded by Dr. Lanny Wilson after the death of his daughter at a rail crossing in 1994.

A 2013 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that as many as 4 in 10 Chicago-area pedestrians and bicyclists said they were at times willing to ignore flashing lights, ringing bells and gates at railroad crossings…

Barkan pointed to the Feb. 3 incident in Valhalla, N.Y., when a Metro-North Railroad commuter train struck an SUV at a grade crossing, killing six…

That crash could have been avoided, he said, if the driver had observed the “cardinal rule” of grade crossing safety: “Motorists must never enter a grade crossing until they have a clear exit path that equals or exceeds the length of their vehicle available on the other side of the tracks.”

Reaching zero traffic deaths on the roads also involves continuous improvement at such crossings.

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