Rail Safety Lifesavers: Preventing accidents at railway crossings

ISSN 2369-873X

28 April 2014
Posted by: Rox-Anne D'Aoust

There are no peaks during the year when it comes to rail crossing accidents. Collisions with trains don’t happen at a particular time of day, during certain days of the week, or even in one season rather than another—they happen all the time. In Canada, there are about 37,000 public, private and pedestrian highway/rail crossings. Each year, approximately 300 collisions and trespassing incidents occur at highway/railway crossings and along railway tracks, resulting in the death or serious injury of nearly 130 peopleFootnote 1. These accidents are preventable. That is why the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) encourages organizations who share our transportation safety concerns to raise awareness about safety issues. One such organization is Operation Lifesaver (OL), a public-private initiative that educates Canadians about the dangers of rail crossings with the goal of preventing collisions between trains and motor vehicles or pedestrians.

Today marks the start of Operation Lifesaver’s Rail Safety Week, a time where Canadians are encouraged to learn more about rail safety. As the problem of passenger trains colliding with vehicles remains one of the issues on our Watchlist, the TSB applauds any initiative that can help prevent such tragic accidents.

Dan Di Tota at TSB
Headquarters in Gatineau, QC
Image of Dan Di Tota at TSB Headquarters in Gatineau, QC

Dan Di Tota, former National Director of Operation Lifesaver, is a Technical Coordinator with the TSB. During his 12 years with OL, he saw many projects move forward to improve public awareness of rail crossing dangers. Operation Lifesaver volunteers engaged with the public in many organized events across Canada during Rail Safety Week. Such events have included crossing blitzes, mock collision scenarios, and presentations. Dan played an instrumental part in getting rail crossing information into Driver’s Education school curriculums across the country. Because most schools are independent, this meant OL and its volunteers had to go “door-to-door” to make this happen – an impressive feat. OL’s focus on partnerships with provincial governments and communities also helped improve awareness about the dangers at railway crossings. Despite these advancements, Dan remains concerned about the number of rail accidents occurring every year.

What danger?

Trespassing, driver distraction, and lack of awareness of how to react at crossing signals are just some of the dangers that are behind many rail crossing accidents.

Some motorists, for example, do not react appropriately at crossings. As passenger trains can travel at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, motorists often misjudge the speed and distance and try to outrun the train. For freight trains, people don’t realize that, even if the train applies the brakes, many of them weigh over 10,000 tons and may require 2 km or more to come to a full stop.

For Dan, one of the major factors contributing to the rail crossing accidents is complacency. Some people simply do not believe these types of accidents will happen to them because they cross rail tracks all the time and nothing ever happens. In many cases, nothing does. However, as Dan points out, this attitude is precisely where the complacency comes from and can be seen as the root cause of many accidents. “Motorists in some cases ignore advanced warning systems, do not pay attention to signs, or may not even know how to interpret the signs. Then, the one day when a train is coming, they risk being involved in a collision because they don’t know what to do,” Dan says. This is even more worrisome when you consider that most vehicle-rail crossing accidents occur within 40 km of a vehicle driver’s home.

“I’m passionate about raising awareness because I have seen first-hand the results of these preventable accidents,” adds Dan. “Complacency, distraction, and ignorance are just as dangerous as texting and driving. Many people do not realize the risk, or the toll these accidents have on families and communities… Locomotive engineers and crew on the trains also have to live with that [fatal accidents], day after day.”

Even though he is no longer with OL, Dan promotes OL safety tips whenever he can and cautions motorists to heed warning signs and to not trespass on railway property.

But perhaps the most important safety lesson he would share with every Canadian is: pay attention. Do you cross railway tracks every day? Are you able to see a train approaching and are you ready to stop before it comes through?

Passenger trains colliding with vehicles is on the TSB Watchlist. Watch the video!

Image of Rox-Anne D'Aoust

Rox-Anne D’Aoust is the TSB’s manager for strategic communications and media relations, and has more than 25 years’ experience in the field. She is also an avid downhill skier, cyclist and runner, and considers herself blessed to have two teenagers who share her passion for outdoor sports (once she takes the iPods away). Her next bucket list item is to learn to play a musical instrument.

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