Rules of the Road

Ever driven over a soda can? That’s about the same as a train driving over your car

Question: I have a few railroad questions: Where do I stop for a railroad crossing? On crossings without gates, once I’ve stopped for the flashing red lights, can I cross if the train is still not too close? Can I stop on railroad tracks while waiting for traffic to clear? Why can’t I walk down the railroad track?

Answer: For those of you who sometimes wonder if these questions are real; yes, yes they are. Usually I get questions directly but, in this case, they were passed on to me by an employee of BNSF Railway. They are questions he has encountered, and I intend to answer them.

However, I recently had the opportunity to meet with a BNSF police officer who is trained in grade crossing collision investigation. During our conversation, it became apparent that while most people know the rules about when to stop for trains, some don’t grasp the severity of consequences for ignoring the rules.

I’d like to share a brief physics lesson I got from the officer: the weight ratio between a 3,000 pound car (about the weight of a Honda Civic) and a 12-ounce can of soda is 4,000-to-1.

Take a moment to consider how insignificant driving over a soda can is for your car, but how utterly destructive it is for the can.

The weight ratio between a typical 12-million pound freight train and a Honda Civic is also 4,000-to-1. Just like you might not notice driving your car over a soda can, there have been car/train collisions where the engineer doesn’t notice the a car.

It takes about a mile for a 100-car freight train traveling at 55 mph to come to a stop. Essentially, by the time an engineer can see a car or pedestrian on the tracks it’s too late to respond.

In 2016 in the United States there were 2,025 vehicle-train collisions at railroad crossings resulting in 265 fatalities. More than one in 10 people involved in a collision with a train did not survive.

Compare that to the 120,712 vehicle crashes in Washington state in 2015 resulting in 551 deaths. Less than one in 200 people died in crashes that didn’t include trains. Every life is a tragic loss, and even one is too many, but the survivability of a crash improves greatly if a train is not involved.

Now for the questions:

▪ Where do I stop for a railroad crossing? Stop for a railroad crossing no less than 15 feet from the tracks.

▪ On crossings without gates, once I’ve stopped for the flashing red lights, can I cross if the train is still not too close? The law says that once a driver stops for a signal device warning of an approaching train, he or she is not to proceed until the crossing can be made safely. The Washington Driver Guide offers additional advice: “Never try to beat a train across the tracks.”

▪ Can I stop on railroad tracks while waiting for traffic to clear? No. Just no.

▪ Why can’t I walk down the railroad track? Except where they intersect with a public road, railroad tracks are private property. It’s illegal, and many of the pedestrian/train fatalities occur because of trespassing.

For those of you in need of some transportation trivia to bring to your next social event, here are a few things you might not know about trains. According to Washington state law, a train is not a motor vehicle. A “motor vehicle” is any vehicle that is self-propelled, except for vehicles that operate on rails. That means that a train engineer doesn’t need a driver license. The engineer is required to have a locomotive engineer certification card.

Because a train is not a motor vehicle, our DUI laws don’t apply to train engineers. Instead, there is a law prohibiting the operation of a locomotive (or steamboat or horse-drawn carriage) while intoxicated.

If the driver of a car is caught speeding at 10 mph over the speed limit, the penalty is either a $125 or a $136 fine, depending on the posted speed limit. If a train engineer exceeds the maximum speed limit by 10 mph, it results in a 30 day disqualification from operating a train for the first violation and a six-month disqualification for a second violation.

How would your driving behavior change if you knew a ticket for 10 mph over the speed limit would include a 30-day license suspension?

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.