Trains & Railroad Crossings
Sharing the Road with Trains

Sharing the Road with Trains: Collision Avoidance and Railroad Crossing Safety Rules

Updated Dec. 11, 2020

Did you know that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a motorist is almost 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than in a collision with any other motor vehicle? You may think that staying safe at a railroad crossing is a matter of common sense and that vehicle-train collisions are a rare occurrence, but sadly, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) statistics have another story to tell.

Preliminary results show that there were at least 2,105 vehicle-train collisions around the United States in 2017, resulting in 274 fatalities and 807 injuries. These figures have remained largely unchanged since 2009.

Vehicle-train collisions are often catastrophic. Drivers must know the tremendous risk they subject themselves to when trying to beat a train to a crossing or drive around protective gates. Understand the risks and avoid injury at railway crossings.

Collisions with trains

Most motorists who take risks at railway crossings do not realize how long it takes a train to stop, even when the driver engages the emergency brake. An average-sized locomotive weighs around 200 tons. With 100 railcars added to that locomotive, the train can weigh approximately 6,000 tons. The weight ratio of an automobile to a train is proportional to a soda can and an automobile.

Trains cannot stop quickly due to their enormous size and weight. If you were to pull out in front of an approaching 100-car freight train that is traveling at 55mph, that train would continue along its path for another mile from the point at which the emergency brake is activated. One mile equates to roughly 18 football fields. If your vehicle is stuck on railroad tracks and an oncoming train is in sight, a collision is unavoidable.

Warning lights and gates do improve grade crossing safety, but they do not prevent vehicle-train collisions altogether. An alarming 94 percent of railroad crossing collisions and 87 percent of resulting fatalities are known to be caused by motorists taking unnecessary risks, not by lack of warning lights or malfunctioning gates. Short of eliminating railway-highway crossings, the only way to reduce railway collisions is for motorists to take responsibility for their own safety and educate themselves on the dangers of risky behavior around crossings.

Railroad controls

To cross railways safely, drivers must first understand how to identify crossings and react appropriately when a train is approaching. Passive signs which are installed along the road near railways will warn you of the crossing ahead, while active traffic control devices at the crossing – such as lights and motorized gates – will help you to determine when it is safe to cross.

These signs and devices do not just provide an essential safety message; they also serve to remind drivers of the laws governing railway crossings. The next section will talk you through some of the most commonly encountered signs and active devices around highway-rail grade crossings.

Advance warning sign

This yellow, circular advanced warning sign will usually be the first warning you encounter that a railroad crossing is up ahead. There may also be pavement markings on the road near the yellow advanced warning sign. Both passive signs are intended to prompt drivers to slow down, look and listen for a train.

Railroad crossing sign

The white crossbuck sign is the most common sign at public railway intersections. It consists of two, crossed boards, printed with the words “RAILWAY CROSSING”. Crossbuck signs are found beside or immediately before a railway crossing and should be thought of as yield signs, indicating that an approaching train has the right-of-way. A number below the crossbuck sign indicates how many train tracks are present if there are more than one.

Look out for a limit-line painted on the ground ahead of the crossing, as this indicates where you should stop to wait for passing trains.

Flashing red lights

The meaning of this active sign is quite clear – stop your vehicle immediately, as a train is approaching. Flashing red lights are accompanied by bells and gates, which will sound and close before a train passes through. Not all railway crossings are equipped with these active warning devices.

Railroad crossing safety rules

Always keep the railroad crossing rules in mind when crossing a railway-highway intersection.

  1. 1

    Look left, right and left again as you approach a railroad crossing.
    Do this even if the crossing has active warning lights that are not flashing – they could be malfunctioning.

  2. 2

    Never try to pass another vehicle as you approach or enter a railway crossing.

  3. 3

    Do not start across the track as soon as a train has passed.
    Wait to see if another train is approaching.

  4. 4

    At crossings with more than one track, wait until you can clearly see down both sets of tracks in both directions, before attempting to cross.

  5. 5

    Certain vehicles such as buses and trucks are legally required to stop at every railroad crossing, even when active warning lights are not flashing.
    Be prepared to stop behind such vehicles.

  6. 6

    Trains often appear to be traveling slower than they are.
    NEVER try to beat a train over a crossing – you will not win.

  7. 7

    In traffic, make sure there is room for your vehicle on the other side of the track before attempting to cross.
    Otherwise, the vehicles behind you may move up and leave you stranded on the tracks.

  8. 8

    You must always stop at least 15ft away from a railway crossing.

Walking on railroad tracks

Do not walk on railroad tracks under any circumstances. This is both illegal and incredibly dangerous. Train drivers will not be able to see you until they are too close to do anything about it. You may not hear or see an approaching train soon enough to get out of the way yourself.

Light rail vehicles (LRV)

Light rail vehicles include trams, trolleys, streetcars, cable cars and other vehicles which use a public roadway but run on tracks. Drivers of these vehicles have the same rights and responsibilities as regular motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists and drivers of other motorized vehicles. However, sharing the road with light rail vehicles does require special consideration.

As with vehicle-train collisions, accidents involving light rail vehicles usually occur because a motorist has behaved irresponsibly. Keep these rules in mind and you should not have a problem sharing the road with light rail vehicles.

  • Always be aware of light rail vehicle routes. Keep a safe distance from light rail vehicles when they share the road with other traffic.
  • Do not attempt to beat a light rail vehicle crossing an intersection.
  • Keep in mind that LRV drivers may have blind spots caused by buildings, trees and other vehicles.
  • Always look both ways for approaching light rail vehicles before crossing their tracks.
  • Do not turn in front of an approaching LRV.
  • When signals are present at light rail vehicle tracks, cross the tracks only when the signal indicates that it is safe to do so.
  • Never drive directly along LRV tracks. They can be extremely slippery, especially when wet.
  • Always aim to cross light rail vehicle tracks at a 90-degree angle. Approaching at a shallower angle could cause your vehicle to lose traction and become stuck.

Tram going through an intersectionMaintain a safe distance from the light-rail vehicle if it shares a street with regular traffic.

Would you pass a driving test today?

Find out with our free quiz!


Like the article? Give us 5 points!

Click a star to add your vote

4.8 out of 5 stars based on 8 votes.

Read next

Railroad Crossing Safety Rules
Trains & Railroad Crossings 2 of 2

Railroad Crossing Safety Rules

Crossing railway lines is incredibly dangerous, as the sheer size and weight of trains means that motorists will always come off worse in a vehicle-train collision. Do not take chances or engage in risky behavior around railway-highway intersections. In these situations, impatience or poor concentration could cost you your life – not to mention the lives of your passengers.

Complex Driving Environments
Driving In Different Environments 1 of 2

Driving in Different Environments

Mastering vehicle control is not the only battle you will face while learning to drive. Student drivers must learn to adjust their driving behavior and new-found vehicle control skills to suit different driving environments and mitigate the risks which accompany them. The type and level of danger you are exposed to while driving can change dozens of times over in a single, short journey.

Risk In Driving Environments
Driving In Different Environments 2 of 2

Risk in Driving Environments

The challenges you face when driving depend heavily on the type of road you are using and whether that road is in an urban or rural environment. As part of your driver's training, you must learn to identify the risks linked to each driving environment and act preemptively to avoid danger. Different driving environments fall into one of four graded risk classifications: controlled, low, moderate and complex.

Vulnerable Road Users 6 of 7

Motorcycle Safety Rules

Motorcyclists must practice defensive driving, ensure their motorcycle meets safety standards and wear appropriate riding clothes to minimize their risk of injury on the roads. Data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that motorcyclist deaths occurred 28 times more frequently than fatalities in other vehicles, in 2016.

Vulnerable Road Users 7 of 7

Animals on the Road

Drivers must keep a lookout for wild, domestic or farm animals crossing the roadway, particularly in rural areas. When a yellow, diamond-shaped animal warning sign is present, remain alert and drive with caution. Should you encounter a herd of animals crossing the road, stop your vehicle and allow them to cross. Only when the animals have completely cleared the highway should you proceed.

Trucks, Buses and Emergency Vehicles 1 of 4

Sharing the Road with Trucks

To share the road safely with large trucks, you must keep in mind that these vehicles are heavy, have a wider turning circle, longer stopping distances and bigger blind spots. Remember that large trucks are designed primarily to transport cargo. They are not as maneuverable as smaller passenger vehicles.

Trucks, Buses and Emergency Vehicles 2 of 4

Sharing the Road with Buses

The precise definition of a bus varies a little from state to state, though it is safe to assume that any vehicle used for passenger transportation which is designed to carry more than ten people qualifies. We will discuss the challenges you face when sharing the road with ordinary passenger buses and school buses.

Trucks, Buses and Emergency Vehicles 3 of 4

Sharing the Road with Emergency Vehicles

Motorists must exercise caution around emergency vehicle operators, as they are exempt from adhering to standard road rules when their sirens and lights are activated. This makes them incredibly unpredictable.

Trucks, Buses and Emergency Vehicles 4 of 4

Sharing the Road with Slow Moving Vehicles

Slow-moving vehicles are those designed to operate at a speed of 25 mph or less, such as farm vehicles, animal-drawn vehicles, road maintenance vehicles motorized construction equipment. By law, slow-moving vehicles must display an orange triangular emblem at their rear to warn road users approaching from behind of their low speed.