I heard on the radio yesterday a commercial for public safety. All well and good. This particular spot spoke to us about safety and the dangers posed at railroad crossings. A fine thing to espouse. Here's my problem.
For many years now we the public have been hammered with the idea that all railroad crossings are dangerous and the railroads should do something to make them all safer. Put in more lights, more gates, whatever. I have a completely different philosophy on this matter. It's not the railroads fault there are deaths at these crossings, it's the fault of drivers. In all my years I can't think of one crossing that did not have at least lights announcing the coming of a train. Most or all in city limits of medium to large cities also have gates. But does this stop the deaths? No.
When was the last time you saw a train trying to beat a car across the tracks? When was the last time you saw a car trying to beat a train? Happens all the time whether lights are flashing and gates are down or not. I have a crossing within a couple miles of my home and I routinely see cars waiting to turn into the cross street sitting on the tracks. This is one of the few intersections where I would say there is a bad design, however you don't have to be Einstein to know it's a bad idea to sit on railroad tracks in a car.
The problem is not design. The problem is not lights and gates. The problem is impatient drivers who try to beat the train. It's not a race but too many treat it that way. Trains are 100 plus tons of hulking steel barreling down two narrow rails. They're not stopping in fifty feet. Traffic laws give specific guidelines for railroad crossings but many simply choose to ignore them.
You can't blame the railroads for stupid drivers any more than you can blame firefighters because your house caught on fire. The next time you hear of a death at a crossing listen for what actually happened. I'll bet it's the driver's fault for not following the law.