By Mark H. Reddig
Host, Land Line Now
Copyright © OOIDA
Picture this: You’re approaching a railroad crossing.
A car crosses the tracks first, but then – just after crossing, with you shortly behind – the car for some reason comes to a complete stop.
And that leaves you in a very precarious spot that quickly turns into a potentially deadly situation, as the train crashes into your truck.
It’s a situation that a coalition of several organizations is trying to prevent.
The organizations are Operation Lifesaver, which promotes rail crossing safety; the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association; the Missouri Department of Transportation; and the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Of course, the effort is not limited to Missouri. It was announced at a series of press conference nationwide a short time ago.
What the groups are promoting is a new online training tool for truckers and other commercial vehicle drivers that’s designed to help them avoid those potentially deadly collisions.
The need is obvious, as Rick Mooney of Operation Lifesaver explained.
“We’re trying to get our message out because 25 percent of all crashes between trains are with trucks, or commercial motor vehicle drivers and their equipment,” Mooney said. “And we want to reach them. It’s difficult to do it, because they’re at the same time traveling on the highways. And we hope that this method may help us get the message out to them.”
While the problem is national, Tim Hull of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said it is especially important to address it in the state of Missouri – for a number of reasons.
“Missouri has the second- and the third-largest rail terminals in the nation in Kansas City and St. Louis,” Hull said. “So naturally there are a lot of trains operating every day across our state. In fact, there are over 700 trains per day that cross over our state on more than 4,000 miles worth of track.
“So you combine that with Missouri commercial vehicles (which) represent about 28 percent of the traffic on our highways today; you can see the possibilities there,” he added. “With more than 6,800 public and private crossings, where the roads actually cross over the tracks, safety – rail safety – is an important concern in Missouri.
“Overall, 59 percent of all highway rail grade crossing crashes in Missouri last year occurred at crossings equipped with either flashing light signals, or flashing lights and gates,” Hull said. “Eighty eight percent of our crossing fatalities and 61 percent of our injury rail grade crossing crashes with all vehicles occurred last year at an active warning crossing.
“Seven of our eight fatalities occurred at a crossing where there was prior warning that the train was coming.
“These active warning devices alert the motorist the train is approaching, yet people are either ignoring them, or they’re trying to simply beat the train to the crossing.”
Many drivers might be tempted to think they don’t need to worry about this kind of thing, that they already know what they need to know, that they don’t deal with rail crossings enough to need the training.
But Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, said that all drivers should be thinking about the topic every time they encounter a rail crossing.
He added that rail crossings are incredibly common where truckers work – both in cities and in rural areas. In fact, he related a close call he had himself when he was behind the wheel.
“You know, I’ve had close call myself once, in the most rural of settings, going to an elevator to get a rail shipment,” Spencer said. “This is somewhere where, gosh, you can see forever and very seldom trains come through there.
“But there happened to be one, just about the same time I was, and I’m focused on where my truck, my trailer needs to be to load it – not necessarily, nearly as much as I should have been as to the … possibility of a train coming.”
The training created by Operation Lifesaver starts with a kind of power point presentation covering basic information about the danger of truck-train collisions.
But a few moments later, the training program becomes an online, virtual trip – set up much like an online video game, something intended to encourage participation.
“The e-learning program that’s being unveiled today will be a remarkable way to visualize the actual interactions with crossings and train traffic that many drivers go through, and is one of the newest tools that can be used to bring home the message of crossing safety,” Rod Massman, railroad administrator at MoDOT, said.
As you prepare to start your virtual trip, you first choose which kind of truck you want to drive.
Once you begin, you can put your mouse on the speedometer to increase or decrease your speed, or to stop.
You can’t steer. That part is taken care of automatically, as is the route. However, when you stop for a crossing, you can use arrows on either side of the steering wheel to look left and right for approaching trains, and then a green arrow at the top of the wheel to start moving again. Several different styles of crossing are represented.
“It’s kind of like a video game; they can have some fun with it, but at the same time learn, and hopefully the bottom line is to save lives, property damage, and particularly cargo,” Mooney said. “It’s all in a learning situation from their computer.
Spencer of OOIDA agreed, but on a more serious note, stressed the importance of training and safety.
“This e-learning program is an innovative way to reach out to the driver community, to provide education, and education on all matters needs to be ongoing and continuous,” he said. “It’s a good little program, it’s a great initiative, and it just reminds and reinforces to professional drivers that these are safety initiatives that you need to take every day, every time.”
Three OOIDA members tried the program – Mac Braswell and Tom Crowley, both of whom now work in the association’s compliance department, and Henry Albert, an owner-operator from Mooresville, NC. And all three generally had a positive reaction to the program.
Crowley did note that older truckers, those most likely to lack experience at video games or computers overall, can have some trouble with the training program. But like Albert and Braswell, he said he could see the value in what the program was passing on.
The public safety officials involved – including Tim Hull of the State Patrol – see the program as a way to extend an already improving highway safety record further in a good direction.
“Currently, Missouri’s experiencing a 13 percent decrease in the number of traffic related fatalities compared to the same time period last year,” he said. “If we can maintain this percentage of decrease, we’re well on our way to surpassing our less than 850 traffic deaths by the end of this year.”
Hull said he sees this as one way to keep those figures going in the right direction.
MoDOT’s Massman added that officials have plenty of reason to think that progress can be made in this area.
He noted during the event that the number of accidents involving all vehicles with trains went up between 2009 and 2010. And, he added, the possibility of a fatality in a vehicle train collision is up to 20 times higher than in a regular highway accident.
The Operation Lifesaver e-Learning program is already online and available to the general public. Just like the other people and organizations taking part, Hull strongly encouraged all truckers and other commercial vehicle drivers to give it a try.
“Rail safety is everyone’s responsibility,” Hull said.”Because everybody is going to be crossing rail grade crossings or railroad tracks, many, many times in their lives. And whether it’s as a motorist or as a pedestrian, you’re going to be at rail grade crossings and tracks.
“We’re here to ask all motorists to remember as you approach a rail grade crossing to slow down, and be prepared to stop. And always, look, listen and live.”