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Remarks to the 16th International Operation Lifesaver Symposium & Training Seminars, Baltimore, MD
Deborah A. P. Hersman
International Operation Lifesaver Symposium & Training Seminars, Baltimore, MD

Helen Sramek, thank you for that kind introduction.  It’s great to be here among so many friends and like-minded safety advocates.

My staff and I decided to take the train up from Washington today to avoid the legendary Beltway traffic, and most of what we discussed on the way up was how quick, efficient, pleasant and safe it is to take the train. 

And with federal investment in high speed rail – and efforts at the federal, state and local levels to encourage increased ridership, train travel is only going to get better – and, with your help, safer.

But as you, the members of Operation Lifesaver know better than anyone, this was not always the case.  There was a time when trains were considered a far more dangerous place to work and travel than they are today.  Thirty years ago, there were nearly 9,500 crossing accidents.  Last year, there were fewer than 2,000.

And Operation Lifesaver has been a major driving force behind this change.  Rail crossing fatalities are down more than 80% since your founding.  Operation Lifesaver can rightly claim credit for saving many of those lives.

So my first and foremost reason for being here today is to say thank you. 

While the Safety Board is an independent agency charged with investigating accidents and recommending ways to prevent them from occurring in the future, we don’t have the authority to require that our recommendations be adopted. 

So to a large extent, we rely on the great work of organizations like Operation Lifesaver to apply commonsense, life-saving solutions at the grassroots level throughout our country.

But I know that Helen and all of you here today would be the first to say that for all the remarkable progress that’s been made in your 38-year history, there is much more work to be done.

Last year, there were 245 fatalities and 708 injuries at rail crossings.  That may be a vast improvement from the past, but it’s still far too many.  And, with new technologies rapidly changing the way that people communicate and drive, emerging threats run the risk of reversing years of progress if we don’t continue the fight to drive down fatalities and injuries.

So I’d like to spend a few minutes today telling you what the Safety Board has found as we have investigated grade crossing accidents, and what I think we can focus on in the coming years to ensure that the number of fatalities continues to drop.

As you know, virtually all grade crossing accidents are the result of one of three factors: the vehicle, the environment, or the driver.  Our investigations have found examples of all three, and we’ve made targeted recommendations to help prevent them from occurring in the future.

Of the three, vehicle factors are probably the least common.  But that’s exactly what we found in a November 17, 2000 accident near Intercession City, Florida, where a 23-axle, 225 foot long heavy-haul truck was delivering a condenser to a nearby power plant. 

The plant’s private access road crossed over a single railroad track.  The slightly humped crossing required the low clearance truck to travel at just 1-3 miles per hour.  As the truck crossed the tracks, the gates came down on the load.  Seconds later, an Amtrak train collided with the right side of the tractor. 

Fortunately there were no injuries, but the tractor was destroyed, as was its $330,000 load, and the train absorbed more than $200,000 worth of damage. 

This was actually the second similar accident that the Safety Board had investigated at the same crossing.  The first involved another heavy-haul truck with the same results, though in the earlier accident the destroyed load was valued at $14 million. 

In both cases, the Board determined that very large low-clearance vehicles were incapable of crossing the track without special precautions.

As a result of our two investigations, the Board issued 26 recommendations, including requiring operators of such vehicles to notify the railroad before crossing a track and to make special arrangements for crossings – a process that is now well-defined in regulations.

More common than vehicle factors are environmental factors, which, as you know, occur when a physical impediment obscures a driver’s line of vision, or makes a crossing particularly difficult for a driver to understand or navigate. 

That’s exactly what happened on November 23, 2005, in Elmwood Park, Illinois.  In very heavy pre-Thanksgiving holiday rush hour traffic, a line of cars became backed up at an intersection as a METRA train approached.  As the crossing gate was lowered, several cars were trapped on the tracks.  While the engineer identified the hazard and put the train in emergency, it was, of course, impossible to stop the train quickly enough to avoid impact. 

The train collided with six stopped vehicles, pushing them into secondary impacts with 12 other vehicles.  Seven vehicle occupants suffered minor to serious injuries, while an additional three train passengers suffered minor injuries. 

The Safety Board determined that the accident was caused primarily by the unusual and unsafe condition of the grade crossing.  An acute angle of intersection between West Grand Avenue and the railroad tracks resulted in an exceptionally wide crossing, and a complex street and rail pattern and related signal interactions at the intersection that frequently desynchronized traffic lights. 

The Board recommended that the State of Illinois construct a grade separation in place of the complex grade crossing, and the State has conducted an engineering study to do just that, though the high cost of construction has been problematic.

Now, as you well know, more than 90% of all grade crossing accidents are due not to the vehicle or environment, but the driver.  That was the cause of a tragic early morning accident on March 28, 2000, near Conasauga, Tennessee. 

In this case, a freight train traveling about 50 miles per hour struck the passenger side of a school bus from Murray County, Georgia, causing three fatalities and several serious injuries to children on board. 

I will now show an animation of the accident sequence.

The Safety Board determined that the accident was due to the bus driver’s failure to stop before crossing the tracks.  We also noted that the School District failed to monitor bus driver performance and could have better reviewed bus routes to eliminate the need to cross tracks. 

As a result of our investigation, we made several recommendations, including installation of stop signs at passive crossings that are traversed by school buses; using information about whether school buses routinely cross passive grade crossings as a factor in selecting crossings to upgrade with active warning devices; requiring all newly purchased and in-service school buses to be equipped with noise-reducing switches; enhancing school bus driver training and evaluation; and including questions about grade crossings on the commercial drivers’ license test. 

Twenty-four states have made these safety improvements.  As the mother of 3, knowing that these safety recommendations are being implemented is especially heartening as we begin a new school year.

In some ways, the easiest work of preventing grade crossing accidents has already been done.  Americans are far more educated about the dangers of crossings than they were three or four decades ago – and as I said previously, you deserve much of the credit for that.  But it means that that if we are going to continue to see the fatality and injury rate decline, the work only gets harder.

And our challenge going forward is compounded by the emerging safety threats on the road today.  Between phone calls, text messages, GPS systems that can give drivers a false sense of security, and in-car satellite radio and entertainment systems, there is more competition for a driver’s attention than ever before.

As an example, last December in Efland, North Carolina, a 26 year old mother of two drove through a railroad crossing into the path of an Amtrak train, killing the woman and her 5 year old son.  A four-month old daughter, who was strapped in a car seat, survived.  While this is not an accident the Safety Board is investigating, the media has reported that the mother was talking on her cell phone as she drove toward the railroad crossing. 

This issue of distracted driving is a major concern for investigators at the Safety Board, and it’s something we’re seeing not just in passenger vehicles, but in all modes of transportation.  In fact, we investigated a collision between a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, California in 2008, where one of the engineers was text messaging at the time of the collision.  Twenty-five people died in the collision, including the engineer.

In the wake of the Safety Board’s investigation, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order prohibiting operating employees, like engineers and conductors, from the unauthorized use of cell phones and other electronic devices while engaged in train operations; and the Federal Transit Administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter recommending that transit agencies evaluate the use of cell phones and electronic devices by their employees.

Here are the facts.  81% of drivers say that they talk on their cell phone while driving.  45% say that they have either been hit or nearly hit by a driver talking on a phone.(1)  And studies have shown that using a cell phone makes the driver four times more likely to be involved in an accident.(2)  All told, the annual cost of distraction-related crashes runs well into the tens of billions. 

Yet, knowing all this, just 29 states include driver distraction on their accident reporting forms; just seven states prohibit the use of handheld telephones while driving; and just 18 states plus the District of Columbia have banned text messaging for at least some drivers.

As one of my first official actions as Chairman of the NTSB, I issued a directive that prohibits the use of any electronic wireless handheld or hands-free device by NTSB employees while driving.  

And as a result of our investigations of accidents in Largo, Maryland in 2002 and Alexandria, Virginia in 2004, the Safety Board has recommended bans on cell phone use by drivers with learners’ permits or intermediate licenses and by commercial drivers with passenger-carrying or school bus endorsements, respectively. 

As a result of our recommendations and the efforts of many others, restrictions on cell phone use by young drivers is the law in 20 states and federal regulations restricting cell phone use by all commercial drivers is in the works.  And as we continue to see large numbers of distracted driving accidents, we will seriously consider making additional life-saving recommendations.

We can’t overlook or overestimate the scope of this problem.  In a study conducted for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in 2006, David L. Strayer writes:

“When driving conditions and time on task were controlled for, the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.”

Half a century ago, drunk driving was considered commonplace; perhaps not encouraged, but certainly not the taboo it is today.  It took a sustained grass roots campaign to change public opinion for good.  Forty years ago, grade crossing accidents were many times more common than they are today.  Likewise, it has taken a prolonged effort to educate the public to get dramatic results. 

Yet today, it’s nearly impossible to drive down a stretch or road or highway without seeing a driver talking on a cell phone. 

As we look to the future of grade crossing accidents – and all vehicle accidents – this, along with continued driver education, must and will be a major focus of our efforts.  And we are grateful to have a strong and effective partner in Operation Lifesaver going forward. 

Thank you.


  1. Nationwide Mutual Insurance, 2008
  2. Redelmeier & Tibshirani, 1997; McEvoy, Stevenson et al., 2005