In 2005, New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich won the Pulitzer Prize for his seven-month investigation (and seven-part series) about railroad crossing dangers, called “Death on the Tracks: In Deaths at Rail Crossings, Missing Evidence and Silence.” Reported Bogdanich:
On average, one person a day dies at a crossing in the United States. Since 2000, more than twice as many people have been killed at grade crossings as have died in commercial plane crashes. But these deaths draw little national attention because they usually come one or two at a time, often where tracks slice through small towns and rural expanses across the country.
As is often true, sometimes it takes bona fide disaster for national attention to focus. We may now have that. You may have heard that four U.S. military vets were killed and 16 injured after a freight train plowed into a “Show of Support-Hunt for Heroes” parade truck in Midland, Texas. But let’s hope the right message gets through.
As Bogdanich noted, most of the time, the railroads' first response is to “blame motorists [and] repeatedly sidestep their own responsibility in grade-crossing fatalities. Their actions range from destroying, mishandling or simply losing evidence to not reporting the crashes properly in the first place.” In addition,
A Times computer analysis of government records found that from 1999 through 2003, there were at least 400 grade-crossing accidents in which signals either did not activate or were alleged to have malfunctioned. At least 45 people were killed and 130 injured in those accidents, according to the records, although in most cases the role of signal malfunctions was unclear.
Federal rules require that railroads maintain signals on tracks they own. The accident reports, all prepared by the railroads, also raise questions in many cases about whether unsafe behavior by drivers contributed to the accidents. In addition, since 2000, railroads filed about 2,300 reports of the most serious types of signal malfunctions: short signals or no signals at all. Most of these malfunctions did not involve accidents.
"My concern is that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "If we had that type of record in aviation, it would be unacceptable."
And while the Times found that “many accidents are indeed caused by careless or reckless driving,” the railroads routinely try to shift blame away from the industry and onto drivers, even to the point of founding their own driver safety front group called “Operation Lifesaver”:
Operation Lifesaver is the nation's most influential rail-safety group, preaching its gospel of driver responsibility to judges, police officers, elected officials and the news media. No one disputes the value of its message - that drivers should pay attention at rail crossings - or the dedication of many of its volunteers. And its work is widely praised by police and community groups.
But documents show that the organization is tightly bound to the railroad industry, and critics, including many accident victims, say the group's message serves another agenda: to inoculate the railroads against liability in grade-crossing collisions. In the view of its critics, Operation Lifesaver is another way the rail industry seeks to sidestep responsibility in grade-crossing accidents.
Operation Lifesaver's position is that the police and judges should crack down on drivers who do not obey traffic safety laws at crossings, but it offers little criticism of railroads that fail to remove overgrown vegetation at crossings, or fail to fix warning signs and signals, or fail to make sure that trains properly sound their horns and obey the speed limit.
Back to Midland. There seems to be some evidence that the driver of the float truck, owned by oilfield services company Smith Industries, may indeed have crossed the tracks even though even though warning bells were sounding and lights were flashing. However,
[S]ome Midland residents said they believe the signal time is too short. They say the guardrails aren't completely down by the time a train comes whizzing by.
"The signals come on and the arms go down, but before they are fully down, the train is already at the intersection," said Mark Thomas, who lives blocks from the track and says he crosses it daily.
"These signal times are unacceptable," Thomas added.
There’s a great opportunity to learn from this crash. Let’s hope the truck driver isn’t scapegoated for what is obviously a far bigger and more dangerous problem in this country.