Each year more than 3,000 crashes and 400 deaths occur at railroad crossings in the United States. To combat this, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has released a report intended to guide traffic engineers in designing devices to control traffic where highways meet railroads. The agency stresses that the report isn’t a set of standards. It’s a process for designing the traffic control devices at railroad crossings, each of which is unique.
The crossings can be marked in a variety of ways including passive signs, flashing lights, and gates that activate when a train nears. FHWA details the process for selecting among the types of controls and for improving compliance with them. Crossings with automatic gates, commonly found at busy locations, account for about 30 percent of all crashes at railroad crossings. Among the more than 800 crashes that occurred at these crossings during 2001, about half were attributed to driver behavior such as deliberately going around the gates or failing to stop. FHWA details several ways to prevent drivers from using oncoming lanes to circumvent the gates — concrete dividers, curbed medians, and four-quadrant gates that lower across all lanes of traffic in both directions. Many of these engineering options are expensive.
“We do need to reduce gate signal violations. Unfortunately, FHWA doesn’t mention automated enforcement, which would be an effective way to do it,” says Institute senior traffic engineer Richard Retting. “Similar to red light cameras, these systems reduce both violations and crashes at grade crossings.” A pilot study of cameras at two crossings in Los Angeles reduced violations 92 and 78 percent within a few months.