What are the Hidden Dangers at Railroad Crossings?
July 19, 2021
A yearlong NJ Advance Media investigation that was published in May 2021 found that hundreds of innocent people are dying each year in the United States at railroad crossings. Drivers often get blamed for railroad crossing accidents, even when they may not be at fault. The report found that the Federal Railroad Association (FRA) has incorrect data on the safety devices of many U.S. railroad crossings that are supposed to protect drivers and pedestrians. Anyone who has been injured at a railroad crossing or other type of train accident needs experienced legal representation.
How Many Accidents Occur at Railroad Crossings?
Between 1,000 and 2,000 accidents occur at U.S. railroad crossings annually. A vehicle or a person is hit by a train every three hours. Many of these accidents are fatal. Except for accidents involving only pedestrians, collisions between trains and cars at highway-grade railroad crossings account for more fatalities than any other type of train accident, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
More than 22,000 Americans have lost their lives at railroad crossings over the past 40 years, and, unfortunately, the number of annual fatalities has increased nearly 25 percent since 2015. In Pennsylvania alone, there were more than 50 train-vehicle collisions at railroad crossings in 2020. Five of these accidents resulted in fatal injuries.
Why are Railroad Crossings Dangerous?
Railroad crossings are dangerous for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Railroad crossings are numerous; there are nearly 128,000 crossings in the United States.
- Trains are faster than most people realize.
- The average freight train can take more than a mile to stop.
- Occupants of a car hit by a train are more than 40 times as likely to die than if they collided with another car.
- Railroad crossing accidents are more likely to happen near intersections.
- Many crossings at intersections lack safety equipment that coordinates with nearby traffic lights.
- Traffic often backs up on railroad crossings near intersections.
- When traffic backs up at an intersection, vehicles may end up stuck on railroad tracks with no way to exit.
Nearly one-third of railroad crossings have safety equipment that does not meet federal guidelines. Automatic gates and flashing lights are the most common railroad crossing safety devices. However, this type of equipment is known to fail and must be regularly maintained.
There are more than 6,000 railroad crossings in Pennsylvania. Only one-third of those crossings are equipped with activated safety devices, such as flashing lights and automatic gates. More than one-third of Pennsylvania’s railroad crossings are on private land.
Why are Drivers Blamed for Railroad Crossing Accidents?
Drivers who get into railroad crossing accidents are typically blamed for attempting to beat the train or ignoring safety devices. However, in many cases, the railroads themselves self-report causes of accidents, and not all accidents are thoroughly investigated. In some incidents, independent investigators have found that railroad crossings were sight-obstructed, or traffic gates and lights were malfunctioning, indicating that it was not the driver’s fault as initially claimed by the railroad company.
The four major railroads in the United States have a combined revenue of more than $70 billion, enabling a huge and powerful political lobbying force as well as legal staff to protect their financial interests. This may put drivers who get into train accidents at a huge disadvantage. This is why it is so important for individuals and surviving family members of those who are injured at railroad crossings to seek experienced legal help from a train accident lawyer.
What Federal Agencies Regulate Railroads?
The FRA is the primary agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that is responsible for regulating railroads in the United States. The FRA was created by the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970. It establishes federal safety guidelines for railroad crossings. However, the FRA does not have the authority to enforce these guidelines. Rather, the enforcement of safety standards is left up to the railroads and state and municipal governments.
Although the FRA does provide millions of dollars each year to localities to pay for safety upgrades, studies suggest that the data on which the FRA’s allocation of funds is based may be flawed, including basic facts, such as the distance between railroad crossings and intersections, and the amount of traffic traveling over the crossings. As a result, dangerous conditions persist, including the following:
- More than 90 percent of railroad crossings near intersections lack safety devices that are interconnected with traffic lights.
- Nearly 40 percent of all U.S. railroad crossings do not even have flashing lights or automatic gates.
- The safety equipment that does exist appears to be prone to malfunction because of weather, software problems, or other issues.
The lack of interconnection with traffic lights is a major safety problem. When traffic lights are interconnected with railroad safety crossing devices, the rail safety system detects an oncoming train and overrides the traffic light, allowing it to quickly change to green to allow any traffic crossing the tracks to clear.
However, the FRA lacks the authority to mandate this type of interconnection at railroad crossings. Furthermore, although the FRA has the power to investigate accidents at railroad crossings, statistics indicate that they conduct investigations only for a fraction of reported incidents. Currently, there is a proposed bill in the U.S. Congress to develop a national strategy for addressing accidents at railroad crossings.
In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) is responsible for coordinating with the FRA to ensure that railroads comply with federal railroad safety regulations. In addition, the PUC has exclusive jurisdiction over all highway-railroad crossing projects.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency responsible for investigating any rail accidents that result in at least one fatality or major property damage. However, the NTSB has no regulatory authority to enforce safety recommendations that it may make for future accidents.
Can I Claim Damages After a Railroad Crossing Accident?
Since a train cannot easily stop, drivers, and pedestrians are usually blamed for railroad crossing accidents. However, injured train accident victims may be able to claim damages if the crossing is deemed a safety hazard due to defective or malfunctioning gates, lights, or other warning systems. If an individual is injured in a railroad crossing accident, an experienced lawyer can determine if they have a right to file a lawsuit against the railroad company or other third parties.
Philadelphia Train Accident Lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP Represent Families Devastated by Railroad Accidents
Serious accidents at railroad crossings continue to happen despite federal safety guidelines. Tragically, many of these train accidents are fatal. Injured individuals and families who have lost loved ones at railroad crossings have the right to pursue justice. The Philadelphia train accident lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP represent train accident victims and their affected families. If you or anyone you know has been devastated by a railroad accident, do not hesitate to contact our team. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, call us at 800-222-USWA (8792) or contact us online. From our offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania, we proudly serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.