Highway safety officials warn motorists to remain alert when operating vehicles near railroad crossings

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

BATON ROUGE – In an effort to prevent tragic accidents at railroad crossings, Louisiana highway safety officials are warning motorists to remain alert when driving near railroad crossings. Three motorists died in a tragic vehicle-train collision in DeSoto Parish over the Mardi Gras holiday.

Although crashes and deaths have declined statewide and in the U.S. in recent years, Louisiana still suffered 27 fatal and injury collisions involving trains in 2013. Five people died, and 32 were injured, according to recently finalized data. Louisiana experienced 322 total rail grade crashes – fatal, injury and property-only -- from 2009-13. The figure declined over the five-year period from a high of 85 total collisions in 2010 to 56 in 2013, according to traffic records data from the Louisiana Highway Safety Research Group at LSU. The Federal Railroad Administration reports highway-rail incidents have declined from 3,066 accidents in 2005 to 2,096 in 2013.

“Vehicle collisions with trains don’t happen often, but when they do, they can be horrific. This is why we’re warning motorists not to become complacent around railroad tracks. They won’t have much time to react when a train is barreling toward them. Prevention is the key,” said Louisiana Highway Safety Commission Executive Director John LeBlanc.

According to Operation Lifesaver, Inc., a national non-profit organization dedicated to rail safety education, someone in the U.S. is struck by a train every three hours. Information from the organization says 95 percent of train-related deaths involve drivers trying to beat a train or people trespassing on railroad tracks.

Operation Lifesaver warns motorists to maintain a distance of at least 15 feet from the rails and to be aware that trains are moving faster than they appear. A typical freight train can take more than a mile to stop, even when the emergency brakes are applied.

The organization recently launched a public information campaign with the message, “See Tracks? Think Train!” Here are some of the tips the campaign offers motorists for operating around railroad crossings:

Be aware that trains cannot stop quickly. Even if the locomotive engineer sees you, a freight train moving 55 miles per hour can take a mile or more to stop once the emergency brakes are applied. That's 18 football fields.

Never drive around lowered gates — it's illegal and deadly. If you suspect a signal is malfunctioning, call the 1-800 number posted on or near the crossing signal or your local law enforcement agency.

Do not get trapped on the tracks during stop-and-go traffic; proceed through a highway-rail grade crossing only if you are sure you can completely clear the crossing without stopping. Remember, the train is three feet wider than the tracks on both sides.

“If your vehicle ever stalls on a track with a train coming, abandon your vehicle immediately. Get out and move quickly away from the tracks in the direction from which the train is coming. If you run in the same direction the train is traveling, when the train hits your car you could be injured by flying debris. Call your local law enforcement agency for assistance.”