Railroad crossing safety always important

The railroad crossing arm drops and waiting motorists can feel the rumble of the approaching locomotive that hasn’t yet come into sight. Impatient drivers inch closer, peering in both directions as if they are approaching a four-way stop sign. Then the driver of the first vehicle in line whips around the crossing arm and zooms hurriedly through the intersection before the train rolls through. Sometimes other drivers follow suit, at times even alternating the narrow route in both directions.

The motorists complete the passage safely. But that’s on a good day.

Did you ever wonder what would happen to one of those cars if it was struck by the force of a train that’s pulling, oh, let’s say, 30 rail cars? It would be comparable to the same force exerted by your car crushing an aluminum soda can.

Statistics provided by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of motorists at highway-rail grade crossings in Ohio, show that a person or vehicle is hit by a train every three hours in this country. And according to the Federal Railroad Administration, 2,025 train-automobile collisions were reported in 2016, killing 265 people and injuring 798.

While that sounds like a lot, the numbers have been consistently dropping over the past three decades. Ten years ago, in 2006, for instance, 2,936 collisions were reported, resulting in 369 fatalities and 1,070 injuries. In 1996, 4,527 collisions occurred with 488 fatalities and 1,610 injuries.

I bring all this up now because today kicks off Rail Safety Week. It’s something that should be more important to us as Ohioans than those who live and travel in other states because Ohio ranks so high among all rail traffic in the country.

In fact, Ohio ranks fifth behind only Texas, Illinois, California and Kansas. A total of 36 freight railroads operate on more than 5,300 miles of track in our state and cross regularly through 5,700 public grade crossings. Trumbull County alone has about 104 crossings on public thoroughfares.

So here are a few things that your parents probably told you when you first learned to drive, but they certainly bear repeating.

Trains always have the right of way. Always.

Nationwide, only 36 percent of crossings have gates, so it’s the motorists’ responsibility to ensure a train is not coming. (Nationwide, many crossings don’t even have the cross buck — black letters in an “X” spelling “railroad.”)

To make sure a train isn’t approaching on the tracks, slow down, turn off your radio, roll down your window, get off the cellphone. Look and listen. And then look again.

Once you know it’s safe to cross, here’s what the PUCO tells us:

Cross with care, but commit. Use the highest gear that will allow you to cross without shifting. And keep going once you start — even if the lights start to flash or gates come down. If you’ve started to proceed into the crossing, keep going.

Every rail crossing in Ohio is required to post the U.S. Department of Transportation number associated with the crossing and the emergency contact number for the railroad. If your vehicle stalls or gets stuck on the tracks, get out immediately and move away from the tracks at a 45-degree angle toward any oncoming train. Then call the emergency number that should be visibly located near the crossing on the light poles or cross bucks. It should be the first number you call if your vehicle is stuck on the tracks or if the warning devices aren’t functioning properly. The railroad can stop the flow of train traffic heading into the crossing, but only if it knows.

If it is an emergency, PUCO advises to next call 9-1-1 or local police.

The Ohio Rail Hotline at 866-814-RAIL (or 7245) can answer any railroad crossing questions.