Transportation: An Opportunity for Safety

By Parkhurst, David; Tackett, Jamie | Nation's Cities Weekly, February 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Transportation: An Opportunity for Safety

Parkhurst, David, Tackett, Jamie, Nation's Cities Weekly

The U.S. transportation system is the world's most extensive network connecting 265 million people and 6 million business establishments. Improvements in technology, vehicle safety, emergency response, and public awareness of prevention methods, have helped lower traffic accidents as a percentage of total U.S. deaths according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Still, however, traffic accidents accounted for approximately half of all accidental deaths in the United States over the past decade.[1]

Safety enhancing resources have begun to curb the problem of transportation related accidents. In Scottsdale, Arizona, the City designed and implemented software that helps it develop comprehensive information on accident trends and necessary enforcement tools. With advances like those in Scottsdale, the US. transportation system is safer but it will never be risk-free.

A sampling of hot transportation safety issues includes:

Highway-Rail Grade Crossings. In 1995, Fox River Grove, Illinois was the scene of a disastrous collision between a crowded school bus and a speeding commuter tram. Seven students were killed and 24 were injured, and the accident prompted a series of investigations and legislative actions.[2] In 1996, a U.S. Department of Transportation task force delivered a report entitled, Accidents that Shouldn't Happen. The principal finding was that "improved highway-rail grade crossing safety depends upon better cooperation, communication, and education among responsible parties if accidents and fatalities are to be reduced significantly."[3]

U.S. rail-highway grade crossing accidents have been cut in half since 1980. Cooperation between the rail industry and the federal government has helped, facilitated by the Rail-Highway Crossing Program begun in 1974. But accidents still occur at the 162,000 public crossings across the nation. In 1996, according to the U.S. DOT there were 4257 highway-railroad crossing accidents that killed 488 people and injured 1,610.[4]

More than 50 percent of rail-highway collisions occur at crossings equipped with active warning devices (e.g. gates, flashing lights, horns). Very few accidents are the result of failed warning devices. Rather, driver risk-taking and lapses in judgment are the principal factors. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requires that each lead locomotive in a train be equipped with an audible warning device. But there are no federal regulations specifying when those devices should be sounded. Individual railroad operating procedures and state law specifies those requirements. At crossings with passive warning devices (e.g. stop signs, crossbuck signs), a train's whistle is the only audible warning of its approach.

According to federal government and rail industry research, tram whistles are a necessary tool that save lives. But there are 227 cities in 27 states that have enacted whistle ban ordinances. However, the policy debate over whistle bans may end soon. The federal Swift Rail Development Act of 1994 directed FRA to issue a rule mandating the use of tram horns at all public crossings. The rule will preempt local ordinances that ban train whistles, except where other safety measures are shown to provide the same level of safety.[5] Implementation of a final FRA rule is still pending.

The rising volume of freight trams running through many U.S. cities is also a potential safety challenge. The increased volume is a result of a strong economy and railroad mergers. Even Amtrak the financially-strapped passenger rail provider, connects freight cars to some of its passenger trains. But this rising volume poses a safety risk for cities whose rail-related infrastructure is inadequate to handle the increased traffic.

For instance, the merger of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads will more than double the number of trains running through Wichita, Kan. Currently, these railroads together run 22 trains through Wichita daily which has a metropolitan population of more than 300,000. …

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