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Preventing serious and fatal car accidents at railroad crossings

Rail traffic is not considered a popular mode of transportation in the United States - at least not compared to its popularity in Europe. This is beginning to change as cities in California and around the country build light-rail transit systems to cut down on urban traffic congestion.

Still, regular train routes are put to good use, primarily as a means of transporting freight around the country. Unfortunately, these various transportation systems do not always coexist peacefully. Car accidents at railroad "grade crossings" have long been a fatal problem, and one that has recently been getting worse. Grade crossings are areas where automobile roads and train tracks intersect at the same level.

There are about 85,000 private grade crossings and 130,000 public grade crossings in the United States. Some are very well marked with crossing arms, flashing lights and audio alerts to warn drivers of an approaching train. Others, however, have barely any markings and motorists may cross them without even slowing down or looking in either direction. In fact, seldom-used railroad crossings can be especially dangerous because drivers are not expecting to encounter train traffic.

To be sure, accidents at grade crossings have declined dramatically. In the 1970s, there were about 12,000 such accidents per year. More recently, the rate has dropped to about 2,000 per year. But for reasons not yet fully understood, the rate of grade crossing accidents rose by 9 percent in 2014. Accidents last year resulted in 270 deaths and 843 injuries.

In an effort to reduce accidents and increase public awareness, the Federal Railroad Administration is reaching out to Google, Apple, Facebook and other major companies that work with GPS mapping and navigation. The goal is to include grade crossing information on as many virtual maps as possible. In addition to including the data, Google agreed to add visual and audio alerts at grade crossings when drivers are using GPS navigation in their vehicles.

As America continues to look for transportation alternatives to relieve congestion and reduce carbon emissions, train travel will likely become increasingly popular. If you regularly drive through grade crossings, please pay extra attention at these intersections. Doing so could very well save your life.

Source: The New York Times, "Agency Taps Mapping Technology to Curb Rail Crossing Accidents," Jad Mouawad, June 29, 2015

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