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Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Handbook - Revised Second Edition August 2007
Section 10: Supporting Programs Table of Contents | Previous | Next


Supporting Programs

Programs other than engineering support and are essential to highway-rail grade crossing safety and operations. These programs include public education about crossing components and driver responsibilities, enforcement of the traffic laws governing movement over crossings, and research on the various components of crossings.

A. Driver Education and Enforcement

As discussed in Chapter II, motorists have major responsibilities for their safe movement over crossings. Because railroad trains cannot stop as quickly as motor vehicles, drivers must take precaution to avoid collisions with trains. However, many motorists are unaware of these responsibilities and do not know the meaning of crossing traffic control devices. Educating motorists on safe driving actions, train operations, and crossing traffic control devices can minimize crossing collisions.

Since the early part of this century, railroads have endeavored to educate the public about crossings. On their own initiative, many railroads developed materials and distributed them to the news media, law enforcement agencies, schools, and civic clubs. They made presentations at schools, civic club meetings, and other gatherings.

Today, these educational programs have evolved into a nationwide program called Operation Lifesaver, an international, non-profit education and awareness program dedicated to ending collisions, fatalities, and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad rights of way. To accomplish its mission, Operation Lifesaver trains speakers to provide a safety message to their communities and promotes the 3 Es: education, enforcement, and engineering.

•    Through education, Operation Lifesaver strives to increase public awareness about dangers around the rails. The program seeks to educate both drivers and pedestrians to make safe decisions at crossings and around railroad tracks.

•    The organization works with enforcement agencies around the United States in support of traffic laws related to crossing signs and property laws related to trespassing.

•    Operation Lifesaver encourages continued engineering research and innovation to improve the safety of railroad crossings.

Operation Lifesaver began in Idaho in 1972, when the national average of collisions at highway-rail grade crossings exceeded 12,000 annually. A six-week public awareness campaign called Operation Lifesaver was sponsored by the office of Governor Cecil Andrus, the Idaho Peace Officers, and Union Pacific Railroad as a one-time, one-state initiative.

During the campaign’s first year, Idaho’s crossing-related fatalities dropped by 43 percent. The next year, the Operation Lifesaver campaign spread to Nebraska, where the collision rate was reduced by 26 percent. Kansas and Georgia experienced similar success the following year.

Between 1978 and 1986, while Operation Lifesaver operated under the auspices of the National Safety Council, all 49 continental states started independent Operation Lifesaver programs. In 1986, the national program was released from the National Safety Council and incorporated as a national, non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization. The founding sponsors of Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI)—the Railway Progress Institute, Amtrak, and the Association of American Railroads—continue to serve on OLI’s 11-member board of directors.

In 1987, the OLI board established a 33-member advisory council of volunteers drawn from a wide variety of partners nationwide. In 1989, OLI opened a national support center office in Alexandria, Virginia, serving the independent state programs and acting as a liaison to the federal government, other safety organizations, and the national media.

Funding for Operation Lifesaver was initially secured in 1987 from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), followed in 1988 by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). In 1992, Operation Lifesaver received a five-year authorization through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1993, continued under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century and the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act.

A state Operation Lifesaver program usually begins with the establishment of an advisory and a coordinating committee. The advisory committee is made up of highly visible individuals from government agencies, civic organizations, and the railroad industry who support the program by their endorsements and by seeking the support of other influential persons. The support of the governor of the state is important and usually achieved. It is important that the advisory committee have representation from both the railroad industry and the state highway agencies to demonstrate the cooperative aspects of the program. The coordinating committee is responsible for the development and implementation of the Operation Lifesaver program.

Educational activities are varied. The goal is to reach as many people as possible through whatever medium is available and appropriate. There are 3,000 trained presenters throughout the states. Typically, they make presentations at schools, civic association meetings, and other gatherings. They distribute materials at fairs, in shopping centers, through the mail, and wherever people are gathered. They work with the media, television, radio, and newspapers to broadcast public service announcements, to appear on talk shows, and to print articles and editorials regarding crossings. They develop the materials, films, slide shows, and public service announcements that are distributed.

Many Operation Lifesaver programs work with drivers of special vehicles, such as school bus drivers and truck drivers, to educate them on their responsibilities and the potential danger at crossings. Operation Lifesaver developed updated training videos and DVDs for school bus drivers in 2005 and is currently updating its materials for truck and commercial bus driver training. In some states, associations representing these groups are actively involved in the program.

Many Operation Lifesaver programs work with driver training courses to ensure that safe driving practices at crossings are included in course material. Many state driving manuals have been revised to include or update the section on highway-rail grade crossings.

Although education may be considered the primary effort of Operation Lifesaver programs, many address enforcement, engineering, and evaluation as well. Enforcement of traffic laws is important to remind motorists of safe driving practices at crossings as well as to “punish” the reckless driver. Many state laws require motorists to stop at crossings at which flashing light signals are activated and not to proceed until it is safe to do so. Many drivers, however, do not stop. Other state laws prohibit drivers from moving around lowered gates; however, many drivers do so. Through the enforcement of these traffic laws and others, drivers will understand that these laws exist for their own safety.

In some states, local and/or state police have become active in Operation Lifesaver by making presentations and by writing citations when a motorist violates the law. This support is essential. It is also important to educate the police in the matter of traffic laws and safe driving practices at crossings. Many instances have occurred in which a police officer unknowingly violated the law or, when questioned, displayed lack of knowledge of crossing traffic laws.

Railroad police are also involved in Operation Lifesaver programs. They assist primarily in making presentations. Although they do not have the authority to stop and arrest motorists at crossings, they can arrest or warn trespassers. They also can assist by notifying the state or local police of unsafe driving practices occurring at specific crossings.

Railroads also assist by having locomotive crews report near misses. Train crews who observe drivers narrowly escaping a collision with a train can record the license plate number, or a commercial vehicle’s owning company or identifying number, and provide the Operation Lifesaver committee, the state or local police, or the railroad safety department with this information. Action can be taken to station police officers at crossings where near misses most often occur, to conduct an educational campaign in the community, or to visit the company owning the trucks whose drivers are observed to have unsafe driving practices.

Operation Lifesaver programs sometimes assist in the engineering aspects of crossing safety and operations. A combined effort conducting educational campaigns in a community while making engineering improvements at crossings has proven most effective in improving safety.

The Operation Lifesaver committee can assist by making the appropriate state and railroad engineers aware of crossings that may need engineering improvements.

Another area of concern for Operation Lifesaver programs is evaluation to ensure that the quality of the program is maintained and that it is reaching its stated goals.

Although Operation Lifesaver is designed to improve safety at highway-rail grade crossings, the program has many positive side effects. First, the cooperative effort among the state, local communities, and railroads often enhances relationships. Many communities have been aggravated by rail operations they may perceive to be too slow, too fast, too noisy, or unattractive. Through Operation Lifesaver, railroads and states work with their communities through established communication channels.

Another positive side effect is that, although the program’s message is primarily directed toward motorists, it also pertains to pedestrians and trespassers. School children are a major safety concern around railroad tracks. Many children are inquisitive about the railroad and daring enough to play on the tracks. Educating children as well as adults about crossing safety assists them in obtaining a respect for railroad operations in general.

Although Operation Lifesaver programs are usually directed toward motorist behavior at public crossings, the same behavior is needed and desired at private crossings as well. People reached through Operation Lifesaver may be the same people who use private crossings.

Today, Operation Lifesaver programs are active nationwide in 49 states and the District of Columbia. More information about the program is available at its official Website.138

B. Video Surveillance and Enforcement

In the 1990s, use of video surveillance became prevalent for a wide range of traffic monitoring and enforcement functions, including red-light running, speeding, and toll evasion. Use of video for traffic enforcement requires that the legal authority be granted by the state. California law requires “a clear photograph of a vehicle’s license plate and the driver of the vehicle,” and numerous states have adopted provisions enabling its use.139 Video surveillance in some instances is used for enforcement purposes; alternatively, a video record of events at a grade crossing, whether obtained by cameras mounted at the crossing or acquired from a cab-mounted recorder, can provide a recording of occurrences that may later be used either for safety improvement efforts or for providing evidence in conjunction with a court case.

In response to a March 15, 1999 collision at the McKnight Road grade crossing in Bourbonnais, Illinois, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) went on record in support of the provision of grants to states to advance “innovative pilot programs” designed to increase enforcement of grade crossing traffic laws. In a follow-up recommendation, NTSB broadened support for video surveillance, noting that it believed such provisions could be effective not only at passive crossings but at active crossings as well. NTSB noted:

To increase the likelihood that grade crossing violations will not go undetected, some States, municipalities, and railroads have turned to the use of photo enforcement at grade crossings. In use throughout the world for more than 40 years, photo enforcement technology such as that used for identifying and citing those who run red lights has recently been adapted for use at grade crossings. In 1995, for example, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began a photo enforcement program that has been credited with reducing by almost 50 percent the number of grade crossing violations detected at 17 gated crossings along the Metro Blue Line route. Encouraged by the program’s success, the MTA is planning to expand its use of photo enforcement by installing six more crossing video systems during the first half of 2002.140

Note: Reductions of up to 90 percent resulted at some locations.141

A grade crossing photo enforcement pilot program has also recently been established in Illinois. The Illinois General Assembly in 1996 required the Illinois Commerce commission to conduct a study of the effectiveness of photo enforcement at grade crossings. According to the commission, it selected three grade crossings in DuPage County, Illinois, for the test… Fully functional in January 2000, photo enforcement at the grade crossing in the city of Wood Dale achieved a 47-percent decrease in the number of violations between January and September 2000. This crossing, which had formerly experienced three to four collisions per year, had only one collision in the pilot program’s first 13 months of operation. Photo enforcement at the grade crossing in the city of Naperville was functional in July 2000, and the crossing has seen a 51-percent reduction in the number of violations.

In 2004, FRA partnered with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and Norfolk Southern Railway in a $482,000, federally-funded research project using locomotive-mounted digital video cameras to capture real-time data of actual highway-rail grade crossing collisions and trespass incidents. The project will collect video of thousands of miles of railroad operations and analyze both collisions and near misses. These types of data have never before been available for research purposes. The grant funding announced will be used for examination and analysis of the data collected.

NCDOT has installed video cameras on its Piedmont passenger train that operates daily between Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina. Norfolk Southern has video cameras on about 850 freight locomotives that operate in 22 states, the District of Columbia, and Ontario, Canada. The study will determine what human factors are involved in grade crossing collisions and trespass incidents. It also will evaluate the performance and effectiveness of current safety improvements made as part of North Carolina’s Sealed Corridor Initiative, an aggressive effort to eliminate grade crossing hazards along a proposed future highspeed passenger rail route.142

Norfolk Southern Railway on-board video uses a proprietary locomotive-mounted system that captures, at four frames per second, real-time digital video and audio of track conditions as well as unusual events, such as incidents and trespasser activity, through the use of a camera and microphone installed on the locomotive. This system also superimposes the speed of the train at any given point, train direction (forward or reverse), as well as horn and brake activations. As part of the research effort, Norfolk Southern will be recording video and sound for at least two years. NCDOT will utilize the data collected to monitor and evaluate the performance of the enhanced warning devices previously installed on the Sealed Corridor and will make design revisions as deemed necessary.

In addition, NCDOT Rail Division and Norfolk Southern are currently in the process of initiating a joint research project with FRA to develop and validate a predictive trespasser model utilizing the data collected on both the Sealed Corridor and Norfolk Southern’s system as a whole. In addition to model calibration, the data will be used to determine the effectiveness of potential preventative measures designed to minimize pedestrian-train interactions.

C. Research and Development

The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) has been active in conducting crossing research. Specifically, FHWA and FRA are sponsors of crossing research and development efforts. Several studies can be found in the FHWA electronic reading room* and on the FRA Website.143 The FRA Website has a list of highway-rail crossing publications from 1969 to 2005, included in this handbook as Appendix K.

* Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Electronic Reading Room (www.fhwa.dot.gov/pubstats.html).

Other sources of studies include the U.S. DOT online library, U.S. DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Technical Information Service, Transportation Research Information Service, Transit Cooperative Research Program, and Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. 144, 145,146 ,147,148,149

In addition to conducting research, FRA annually publishes a document that contains statistical information on crossings and crossing collisions. These data are generated from the U.S. DOT National Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory, of which FRA serves as custodian, and from the Railroad Accident/Incident Reporting System.

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program is administered by the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

TRB also assists in disseminating research results through presentations made at its annual meeting each January. The TRB committee responsible for crossings, Committee A3A05, sponsors one or two sessions on crossings. The committee is also active in identifying areas of needed research and in encouraging an appropriate agency and/or organization to undertake the research. Two versions of a bibliography, Highway-Rail Grade Crossings, Bibliography 57 and 58, are available from TRB. Other TRB studies are available on its Website.150

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) often conducts informal research and sometimes sponsors research by a contractor. For example, it participated in the funding of the compilation of state laws. AAR studies can be purchased from its Website.151

The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association’s Committee 9 on crossings is often active in informal research by its members’ employers. This committee also identifies areas of needed research and encourages the most appropriate agency or organization to conduct the research.

NTSB conducts special studies on the safety aspects of a particular area pertaining to crossings. For example, it conducted a study on trucks carrying hazardous

materials at crossings. The report title is “Railroad/ Highway Grade Crossing Accidents Involving Trucks Transporting Bulk Hazardous Materials.” This and other NTSB studies can be found on its Website.152

Individual railroads and crossing equipment suppliers often conduct special studies or research and development activities. For example, railroads often monitor the performance of a particular crossing surface or test the use of special lighting devices. Suppliers often conduct in-house research to identify improvements of existing products and develop new products.

D. References

Operation Lifesaver Program Guide. Chicago, Illinois: National Safety Council.

Rogers, William Charles. The Effectiveness of Operation Lifesaver in Reducing Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Accidents. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University, December 1980.


138 Operation Lifesaver Website (www.oli.org).

139  State of California 1998 Vehicle Code. State of California Department of Motor Vehicles, 1998, Section 210.

140  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Safety Recommendation, February 15, 2002 (H-02-01).

141  “Photo Enforcement at Long Beach Blue Line Grade Crossings: Final Report.” Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, December 31, 1997, pp. 1–11.

142 “FRA Announces First Ever Use of Locomotive Mounted Cameras to Study Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention.” Federal Railway Administration (FRA), U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S DOT), Office of Public Affairs, October 19, 2004.

143  FRA Website (www.fra.dot.gov).

144  U.S. DOT Online Library (dotlibrary.dot.gov).

145  Bureau of Transportation Statistics Website (trisonline.bts.gov/search.cfm).

146  National Technical Information Service Website (www.ntis.gov).

147  Transportation Research Information Service Website (www4.trb.org/trb/tris.nsf).

148  Transit Cooperative Research Program Publications Website (www.tcrponline.org/publications_home.html).

149  Volpe National Transportation Systems Center Information Resources Website (www.volpe.dot.gov/infosrc/index.html).

150  Transportation Research Board Publications Index Website (pubsindex.trb.org).

151  American Association of Railroads Publications Website (www.aar.org/pubstores).

152 NTSB Website (www.ntsb.gov).

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