Rules of the Road

These kinds of accidents should stay in the movies; for safety’s sake, it’s worth waiting

A tanker truck prepares to cross the railroad tracks intersecting Grandview Road. Crossing a train with a tanker truck presents a big risk to not just the occupants of the train and truck, but also the surrounding community, and the rules about driving trucks carrying hazardous materials over train tracks align with the potential risk.
A tanker truck prepares to cross the railroad tracks intersecting Grandview Road. Crossing a train with a tanker truck presents a big risk to not just the occupants of the train and truck, but also the surrounding community, and the rules about driving trucks carrying hazardous materials over train tracks align with the potential risk. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: At the rail crossings at Slater Road and Grandview Road, what is the requirement for trucks carrying hazardous materials? It makes sense that they stop at uncontrolled crossings, but why do they have to stop when there are crossing signals? Is it a company regulation? At the Grandview crossing they stop empty going west and stop full going east. Why don’t they pull to the side of the road? Is that a requirement? I’ve seen as many as eight cars behind these trucks at crossings.

Answer: Before I answer this question, let’s take a moment and recall the 2010 film, “Unstoppable.” (Not to be confused with the 2004 film “Unstoppable” or the 2013 film “Unstoppable.” Someone in Hollywood needs to be more inventive with titles.) In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a synopsis: An unmanned freight train barrels toward a city while our heroes race against the clock to prevent a catastrophe. In the process, anything on the train track gets annihilated.

Or you could refer to the train crash in James Bond – “GoldenEye.” Or the train crash in James Bond – “Skyfall.” Or the train crash in James Bond – “Octopussy.” Apparently train crashes are a go-to narrative device in James Bond films. The point is, trains do a lot of damage when they hit stuff.

Crossing a train with a tanker truck (something that surprisingly hasn’t yet been done in a James Bond film) presents a big risk to not just the occupants of the train and truck, but also the surrounding community, and the rules about driving trucks carrying hazardous materials over train tracks align with the potential risk.

Commercial truck drivers are required to obey Washington’s traffic laws, but they also follow Federal laws. When it comes to rail crossings the laws are quite similar. Drivers of the following vehicles are required to stop between 15 and 50 feet from any rail crossing:

▪ School buses transporting children or other passengers.

▪ Commercial vehicles transporting passengers.

▪ A cargo tanker, whether loaded or empty, that carries hazardous materials (and a few other kinds of materials).

▪ A commercial vehicle that is required to have a hazard placard for one of the many listed categories in the law.

Although it seems obvious that the point of stopping is to check for trains, the law doesn’t let anything slip by and specifies that while stopped, drivers will “look and listen in both directions” (can you listen in one direction?) along the track for any approaching train. Drivers also are required to select a gear that will allow them to cross the tracks without shifting, presumably to avoid a stall on the tracks. The law seems pretty serious about avoiding a train/tanker truck collision, as it should be.

There are a few exceptions (it seems like there are always exceptions) to the requirement for commercial vehicles to stop before crossing train tracks, including:

▪ A police officer or flagger directs the driver across the tracks.

▪ A functioning traffic control signal is transmitting a green light.

▪ The utilities and transportation commission has identified a crossing where a stop is not required.

▪ A few other obscure reasons that you can read about in the law if you haven’t had enough yet.

The original question mentioned Grandview Road, which does have a traffic signal before the train tracks. Curious, I stopped by that crossing to see what commercial drivers would do. In the few minutes I was there I watched two tanker trucks proceed through the green light without stopping at the rail crossing, apparently aware of the exception to the law.

We actually have one location in Whatcom County where the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission has determined that commercial vehicles don’t have to stop before crossing train tracks. It’s on South Bay Drive, and the tracks serve Lake Whatcom Railway, a privately operated train that runs infrequently as a tourist attraction. I’ve never ridden the train, but I’ve heard it’s great.

As for why the trucks don’t pull over when there are cars behind them, you may be thinking of the law that requires slow-moving vehicles to move off the roadway when a line of five or more vehicles forms. Ultimately, it would be up to a judge to make a determination, but I don’t think this law was intended to require commercial drivers to pull off the roadway at train tracks, based on both the language and the intent of the law.

If you get frustrated because of a delay caused by trucks stopping at train crossings, remember that travel is a balance of getting somewhere quickly and getting there safely. The wise driver will give up a little time in trade for safe travel.

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 TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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