Last year, there were 77 “crossing collisions” between trains and other vehicles at railroad crossings in Iowa, and six people died. A group called Operation Lifesaver has made it a mission to teach drivers crossing safety, especially during wintertime.
Spokeswoman Shelley Harshaw says the weather can be an extra distraction, and a lot of rail lines run through this part of the country, with a lot of places where roadways cross tracks.
Last year the crashes and fatalities “spiked,” Harshaw says. She says the group’s hit education hard this year with its “Three E’s,” Education, Engineering and Enforcement — and says the numbers are down. Nationally, there were 355 highway-rail fatalities at grade crossings.
Iowa ranks sixteenth in the nation for the number of crossing collisions recorded in 2005. Education consists of sending speakers out to any group that asks for one, with a simple message. “Any time is train time,” she says, and the message is to always expect a train because if drivers look, listen and live — they will live, at the highway-rail grade crossing.
Enforcement puts teeth into that advice, as Harshaw says they do that in cooperation with Iowa law enforcement. They put a law-enforcement officer on the “lead locomotive” and other squad cars a ways back. When the officer sees a car that fails to yield at the crossing, a driver who speeds up to beat the train or goes around the crossing gate, he’ll radio the others.
Using chase cars and even state patrol airplanes at times, they follow up and ticket the offending drivers. She says new high-tech systems make it even less likely that any driver could bypass warning lights and safety arms to “beat the train” at a road crossing. By the time the gate comes down, within 20 to 25 seconds the lead locomotive is going to be there, no matter what the speed of the train.
Harshaw says while many rural crossings don’t have automatic barriers or even lights and bells when a train’s coming, there is little proof that those automatic warning systems would prevent all crashes. Drivers should stop at least fifteen feet before railroad crossings, especially in winter when some hit the brakes too late and slide onto the tracks.
In addition to half a dozen fatalities last year, there were 32 injuries from crashes at railroad crossings, and a handful of deaths and injuries to people trespassing on the tracks.