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2013 is shaping up to be a deadly year at Iowa railroad crossings according to the Des Moines Register.  Though railroad crossing deaths have been decreasing over the past decades, 2013 is the deadliest in Iowa since 2007.  Iowa averages 57 railroad crossing crashes resulting in 4.5 deaths and 21 injuries each year.

Though some drivers simply fail to stop at a crossing, other risk factors are often to blame.  For example, only 1/4 of Iowa crossings are protected by gates and less than 1/5 of Iowa railroad crossings are guarded by lights and bells.  Most crashes occur at crossings without “active” warning devices such as lights and gates.  Compounding the problems, many crossings have poor visibility – including site obstructions – or unusual track geometry (curves in either the railroad tracks or the roadway) that make seeing a train difficult.

Rail safety advocates believe companies need to do more to reduce the risk of trains and vehicles crossing paths….

They say gates and flashing lights should be installed at more highway railroad crossings.  Those two devices are considered the most effective tools available to prevent accidents, but critics claim that rail operators have resisted efforts to require more of them – largely because of costs.

– Daniel P. Finney and Jeffrey C. Kummer at Des Moines Register

Train accidents and, specifically, railroad crossing accidents, can have devastating effects on motor vehicles. When a train hits another vehicle — a car, truck or SUV — the results are catestrophic. Often, these accidents and deaths could have been prevented.

Railroad crossing collisions can have any number of causes. Some of these causes include:

  • Failure to install proper warnings, such as lights, alarms (crossing bells) or a functioning crossing gate
  • Defective warnings — inoperable lights, bells or gates
  • Improper sight lines that prevent a vehicle’s driver from seeing an oncoming train until it is too late
  • Failure to properly maintain the crossing — such as allowing overgrown trees, vegetation and other foliage to obstruct or hide an oncoming train
  • Improperly parking a train at or near a crossing — this not only hides an oncoming train from view, but gives motorists a false sense of safety in seeing a parked train at the crossing
  • Failure to sound the train’s horn or whistle at or near the crossing
  • Other negligence that may appear on the train’s data recorder or video recorder

Railroad companies need to do more to prevent these tragic collisions that kill. Unfortunately, some railroad companies attempt to cover up their role in causing these tragedies rather than implement safety improvements to prevent them.

In October, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad was hit with a $4 million penalty — on top of a $21.6 million jury verdict — because of its “staggering” pattern of misconduct that included destroying evidence in an attempted cover-up of its role in the deaths of four young people who were killed at one of its railroad crossings.

The Court found that BNSF destroyed some evidence, fabricated other evidence, interfered with the investigation and purposefully lied and advanced misleading facts in order to conceal the truth.

Railroad companies should be held accountable for dangerous railroad crossings that injure and kill. Is there a different set of rules for railroad companies than for everyone else? Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety. How many people have to die before the railroads finally accept responsibility for protecting their own railroad crossings?

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© Copyright 2013 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.

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