State looks for ways to decrease collisions at railroad crossings

Illinois No. 2 in the U.S. in total number of incidents

By Scot Bertram
Illinois News Network

Experts are trying to figure out how to reduce collisions at railroad crossings in Illinois.

The state ranked second in the country last year, with nearly 150 people hit by trains and 46 deaths.

Illinois has the second-largest rail system of any state with more than 7,300 miles of track and more than 10,000 public highway-rail crossings.

“The simple answer to the raw figures is Illinois has an exposure problem,” Chip Pew, state coordinator with Illinois Operation Lifesaver, said. “We have the second-most public crossings, other than Texas. We have the second-most miles of track. Add to that we have more than 140,000 miles of streets and roads. We have a lot of trains. We have a lot of crossings. And we have a lot of people.”

Pew says there remain hundreds of places in the state without any kind of active warning system of an approaching train. However, that technology is no guarantee that problems will be eliminated.

“People think crossings, if they have bells and lights, then they would be safer,” Pew said. “When, in actuality, more than 50 percent nationally of all collisions that occur at public crossings occur because people drive around the crossing gates. Crossings that we would think have the best protections aren’t necessarily making them any safer.”

Illinois actually is ahead of the national average when it comes to crossings with active warnings systems, and federal regulations mandate at least 20 seconds of advance warning time once the lights begin flashing and the arms come down at a crossing.

But Pew says drivers still appear to frequently misjudge how quickly a train is approaching.

“The background creates no depth so you can’t accurately judge speed and distance of it,” Pew said. “And, unfortunately for people who think maybe it’s a slow-moving freight train, in reality, it’s a 79 mile-per-hour Amtrak or Metra train and they try to beat it. That might have been a fatal decision.”

He recommends increased enforcement efforts at crossings in Illinois.

“I think you need to issue citations,” Pew said. “There has to be some consequence other than the worst, ultimate consequence in which they lose their life.”

State lawmakers recently increased fines for drivers who disregard activated railroad gates and warning lights to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a subsequent offense. The state now has some of the strictest penalties in the nation.

Texas is the only state with more collisions at crossings than Illinois.

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