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Distracted Driving an Issue Even as Train Deaths Decline

Less people are dying at railroad crossing these days, but distracted driving has emerged as a serious threat.

The frequency of train and automobile collisions has decreased nearly 80 percent in the last three decades and has dropped significantly even in the last five years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

There were roughly 2,000 train-vehicle collisions in 2011. That comes out to approximately 2.86 accidents per one million train miles.

Experts believe the lower rate of crashes is due to greater public awareness. Studies have shown that distracted driving has been a more significant factor in crashes than darkness, poor weather or obstructed views. People are distracted by phones or are listening to music through headphones and not notice the warnings.

Because trains always have the right of way, drivers must be aware of their surroundings. Even with emergency brakes, a train traveling at 55 mph generally cannot stop within a mile.

Many people do not realize that some crossings do not have active warnings, such as flashing lights or gates, but research has shown that more crashes occur at locations with active signals. Drivers rush to try to beat the signal because they do not want to have to wait.

A 2011 safety project had officers ride on trains to see driver behavior from the perspective of a train engineer. They witnessed drivers failing to stop at crossing and driving around the warning gates. Train crews say this type of behavior happens on a daily basis.

Drivers need to realize that warning signals are based on extensive research for each particular crossing. Experts analyze when traffic needs to be stopped in order to ensure that trains do not strike vehicles. If people ignore those warning signs, they put their lives in serious danger.