Train-vehicle crashes might not happen all that frequently, but they almost always leave devastation in their wake. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics show that motorists are nearly 20 times more likely to die in train-vehicle collisions than crashes involving another motor vehicle.
In 2014, 269 people died and 849 others were injured in train-vehicle crashes. Most of these incidents—an estimated 70 percent—happen at rural train crossings, which can be dangerous.
Why Are Rural Train Crossings Dangerous?
For one thing, many rural train crossings lack gates or flashing lights to warn motorists and pedestrians of oncoming trains. This can become especially dangerous at night or in bad weather, as motorists can have trouble seeing an oncoming train.
Furthermore, these rural train crossings can have uneven grades, or humps, which are supposed to allow vehicles to easily cross over the tracks. In some cases, however, this uneven grade can cause cars or trucks to bottom out on the tracks, placing them in great danger of being hit by an oncoming train.
It is also worth noting that a train can’t simply slow to a stop, the same way that a car can. When a train is fully loaded, it can take upwards of a mile for it to come to a full and complete stop. In these circumstances where a car or truck is stuck on the tracks, especially at night, the chances of an engineer being able to stop the train in time become slim.
This month, we have seen a number of train-vehicle collisions at rural train crossings. All of these crashes ended in tragedy.
Train Crash at Rural Train Crossing in Georgia Leaves Truck Driver Dead
On Tuesday, December 1, Brendon Lewis and his friend James Myers were pulling up to a rail crossing in DeKalb County, Georgia when disaster struck. The two men witnessed a truck at the Fleetwood Road crossing get broadsided by an oncoming train.
The driver of the truck, 62-year-old Norman Devoe, was ejected from his vehicle. Myers ran to Devoe’s aid but it was too late. “I watched him take his last breath and there was absolutely nothing I can do,” Myers said.
Motorists who use this rural train crossing regularly stated that more needs to be done to make it safer, like installing crossing gates and flashing lights. Many say they have witnessed a number of near-misses at this crossing.
Brendan Lewis told CBS 46 that the crossing “would definitely be safer” if gates and flashing lights alerted motorists of oncoming trains. He and Myers added that sometimes a train horn by itself isn’t enough.
Kuna High School Valedictorian Dead in Train-Vehicle Collision
It was just after 8:00 p.m. on the night of December 28 that Shari Francois of Kuna, Idaho got a call that no mother is ever prepared for. Her son Peter, or PJ as his friends called him, had been killed in a serious accident about a mile away from her house.
PJ’s Subaru Impreza was struck by a Union Pacific freight train at a rural train crossing on the west side of Kuna. This crossing on Black Cat Road, not far from the intersection with North Greenhurst Road, is just like thousands of other rural train crossings throughout the country—no crossing arms, no flashing lights, just a stop sign, and a railroad crossing sign.
The engineer of the Union Pacific freight train followed the required protocol by sounding the horn in advance of the crossing. An investigation into the crash showed that the train was going 58 miles-per-hour when the collision occurred. The speed limit in the area is 70 miles-per-hour with scattered restrictions in some places.
The engineer, who couldn’t discuss the crash investigation, said if he’d seen the Subaru on the tracks and activated the emergency brakes, it would have still been unlikely that the accident could have been avoided.
According to the Idaho Statesman, there were 58 train-vehicle crashes in Idaho between 2010 to 2014. The state’s annual number of these incidents during the same period ranged from eight in 2012 to a high of 16 in 2014. Many of these crashes occurred at rural train crossings.
Three Dead After Collision at Rural Train Crossing in Union City, Oregon
Just one day after the Idaho accident that killed PJ Francois, three people in a Jeep Cherokee were killed when the vehicle was struck at a rural train crossing in Union City, Oregon. The fatal crash happened at around 2:54 p.m. near the crossing at Curtis Road and Miler Lane.
According to News Talk 870AM, the Jeep was heading in the same direction as the train before it made an abrupt turn at the intersection. The Jeep didn’t make it across the tracks in time and was broadsided by the train, ejecting all the occupants from the vehicle. Killed in the crash was 20-year-old James Johnson of Chiloquin, 43-year-old Clayton Colpitts, and 40-year-old Penny Jo Colpitts both of whom were from Union.
The crossing at the intersection where the collision occurred does have flashing lights. However, it lacks crossing gates.
Crossing Gates and Flashing Lights Will Make Rural Train Crossings Safer
According to rail safety advocacy group Angels on the Track, nearly 80 percent of grade crossing deaths occur at lightly-traveled train crossings that are not equipped with gates. Furthermore, you are far more likely to be killed or injured at a train crossing with stop signs or crossbucks than a crossing with automated gates.
The safety advocacy group believes that by installing reliable gates at rural train crossings, most grade crossing deaths could be eliminated—an idea well worth the cost.