High court weighs dangerous crossings 

A case argued last week before the United States Supreme Court may determine whether railroad companies can be held responsible for injuries that occur at highway-grade railroad crossings if those intersections are not protected with safety devices like flashing lights, gates and bells. The ruling could have profound effect on Montana motorists, who cross 1,445 public railroad crossings throughout the state, of which only 360 are protected with active warning devices.

The case arose out of an October 1993 accident in Gibson County, Tenn., in which a car collided with a Norfolk Southern train, killing the driver instantly. Although the motorist was driving at only 20 mph, his car windows were closed, the radio was on and the heater fan was running, and he was unable to hear the train whistle and stop in time to avoid the collision. The accident occurred at a crossing that had no active warning devices, as required under Tennessee statute.

Such accidents, though less common in Montana, occur nationwide every day, with a train colliding with a person or a vehicle approximately once every 115 minutes. In 1998, Montana had 15 railroad crossing injuries, including four fatalities. In fact, motorists are 40 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in one involving another vehicle.

“In Montana, unprotected crossings are a big problem,” says Sherry Kiesling Fox of RailWatch, a railroad watchdog group. “Nationwide, 80 percent of all crossings don’t have lights or gates, so we’re hopeful that this case may indeed force the railroads to accept some responsibility for crossing safety, because they’ve been let off the hook for too long now.”

Fox admits that over the last 20 years, railroad crossing fatalities have been declining, in part due to the industry-sponsored public education campaign, Operation Lifesaver, which airs public safety announcements showing the effects of an automobile-train collision. Nevertheless, with only 20 percent of the nation’s 160,000 public highway-railroad crossings outfitted with gates and flashing lights, Fox says it’s time the railroad industry bear more responsibility.

“If you’ll watch the tone of those [public service announcements], they generally blame the driver,” says Fox. “That’s where the railroads put their money, into these expensive campaigns that try to make everyone believe that it’s always the driver’s fault, when in fact that’s not the case.”

Most new railroad crossing signals are paid for out of federal transportation funds, with about six new signals added in Montana each year. A decision in the case is expected as early as May.

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