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What are drivers thinking before they get rammed at railroad crossings?

Trailer Talk blog by Tom Berg, Senior Editor

“Stop, Look and Listen.” You’d think professional truck drivers, of all people, would heed that warning at railroad crossings, but not all of them do.

The blurry photo here shows a locomotive blasting through a van trailer at a guarded railroad crossing, one of several collisions shown on a TrueTV program about strange events on our highways.

This one’s strange because of the extensive protection at the crossing – multiple, prominently mounted warning lights and gates blocking all lanes in the street. Yet the truck driver got his trailer into the path of the train, probably by violating one of the most basic rules for a tractor-trailer driver: Do not proceed onto a crossing unless you’re sure you can completely drive through it without stopping.

In this wreck the damage to the locomotives and train cars was probably minor because a van is a soft target. If it had been a loaded tanker or a heavily laden dump truck or flatbed, the collision would’ve been far worse.

The TrueTV episode showed two other wrecks where drivers tried to beat a train but were caught while still moving. In one of them, the tractor’s frame was almost sheared in two as it was dragged sideways by the trailer’s kingpin. The force of the impact tore loose the tractor’s bumper. Even though the cab was not hit, I wonder if the driver’s neck was whiplashed sideways. Ouch!

Several truck-train collisions in recent years were far more tragic. Last June, out in the Nevada desert, a dump truck T-boned a fast-moving Amtrak passenger train, setting off a fire that killed at least five people on the train and the driver behind the wheel. This was at a protected crossing in broad daylight in the middle of nowhere. What was the driver thinking?

In March 1999, a driver said he didn’t see the warning lights at a crossing in downstate Illinios and proceeded onto the tracks. His flatbed trailer, carrying heavy steel products from a nearby mill, was hit by an Amtrak train. It derailed accordion-style, killing 18 passengers. The driver had recently lost his CDL for getting three speeding tickets and was driving on a temporary license that he was granted after attending a safety class.

Just the other day a Florida tank-truck driver got in the way of a CSX freight at a crossing on private property. The crossing had only a stop sign, but authorities said the driver apparently didn’t stop and probably didn’t look or listen, either. Three crewmen on the locomotive escaped an ensuing fire, but the truck driver did not. His family said he had celebrated his 51st birthday the previous weekend.

Operation Lifesaver, a railroad-government safety program, says that 2,000 wrecks occurred between trains and motor vehicles in 2010. Most of them involved motorists who committed tragic mistakes and sometimes did really stupid things. But some were done by truckers.

Back in the 1980s I heard of an owner-operator wrecking a low-slung car-hauling trailer by high-centering it on some tracks north of San Diego. Those were the days before cell phones, and the driver used a nearby merchant’s phone to place frantic calls to try to get scheduled trains stopped. But he never got through to the right person before a commuter train rammed the expensive, brand-new trailer.

He was there because he had just posed the rig, including his show-quality COE tractor, for some photos to be used by a now-defunct truckers’ magazine. I don’t think the editors included pics of the wrecked trailer.

Of course the moral of this story is, be especially careful at RR crossings. Trains can be damaged and the people on them can be hurt. But trains are bigger and heavier than trucks, which will always lose in any collision.

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