When it Comes Down to You and a Train, You Won’t Win!

By Member Jennifer Homendy

It seems like it should be obvious that you should never gamble with safety, but, for some reason, people often do when it comes to trains.

Last spring, I visited our regional office in Alaska, and on the way to a meeting, I stopped along the road near Turnagain Arm. Just beyond the parking lot was a fence, some train tracks, and a stunning shoreline overlooking the bay. Signs were posted along the fence, warning visitors not to cross the tracks. On that day—and I’m sure many others—the warnings were ignored. The fence was cut, people were crawling underneath to get to the shoreline, and several families were taking pictures on the tracks. It was a familiar scene. I’ve witnessed the same risky behavior on train tracks and at crossings near my home, and, let me tell you, when it’s between you and a train, you won’t win! Trains weigh tons, they’re moving faster than you think, sometimes you won’t hear them (even though you think you will), and they can take over a mile to come to a stop. Don’t risk it!

Railroads have always had the right of way, and they often existed before the communities that grew around them. Roughly a century before commercial airports began connecting a network of American cities, and long before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the Interstate Highway System, the first steam engine railroads were created to transport passengers and freight in the United States. Railroads were foundational to our country, pushing westward and growing throughout the industrial revolution. As trains transported more and more passengers and commerce across a young nation expanding its territory, cities and small towns grew alongside the tracks. This history is why we now see so many highway-rail grade crossings in the United States.

Grade crossing safety has been a challenge for decades. Fatalities and injuries resulting from collisions at grade crossings occur all over the United States and are particularly problematic in densely populated urban areas that surround at-grade tracks. States and local governments are primarily responsible for the decisions that make crossings safer, including upgrades to warning signals and infrastructure improvements, such as roadway redesigns, crossing consolidations, and grade separations. But these projects are expensive for states and local governments, and they often require funding from oversubscribed federal grant programs.

In 2008, following an audit by the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Inspector General, Congress required the DOT to identify the 10 states with the highest number of grade crossing collisions and direct those states to develop action plans identifying specific solutions for improving safety at crossings, particularly crossings where multiple accidents had occurred or that were at high risk for accidents. Those states were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas.

In 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act extended the mandate to all states. The law also required the DOT to develop a model grade-crossing action plan and distribute it to the states to help focus their efforts. This requirement was in response to two NTSB safety recommendations (H-12-60 and -61) issued following a grade crossing collision we investigated on June 24, 2011, in Miriam, Nevada, which tragically took the lives of a truck driver, a train conductor, and four train passengers.

Despite implementation of these recommendations, as well as many others, and the tremendous actions of railroads and state and local governments in partnership with the federal government, grade crossing collisions and the rate at which they occur have increased over the past decade. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show that there were 2,216 grade crossing incidents in 2019, up from 2,052 in 2010. The rate of incidents per million train miles also increased from 2.911 to 3.273 over the same time period, while fatalities at grade crossings grew from 261 to 293.

Those figures don’t even include trespassers on train tracks, like those I saw in Alaska. Trespasser incidents (not at grade crossings) have increased from 788 in 2010 to 1,092 in 2019. Deaths and injuries have soared from a total of 801 to 1,122 over the last decade. This is tragic, and, as a society, we can—and must—do better.


The NTSB continues to investigate grade crossing collisions and recommend safety enhancements, such as infrastructure upgrades and better signage at crossings. We’ve held public forums and worked alongside the FRA, Operation Lifesaver, railroads, and rail labor to raise public awareness about safety at grade crossings and the need to stay off the tracks. But, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to always be vigilant and take safety seriously. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must obey warning signs and signals, stay off the tracks, stop and look both ways at passive crossings, and avoid distractions. Trying to beat an oncoming train is reckless and deadly.

Teen Drivers: Don’t Take Your Return to the Road for Granted

By: Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Office of Safety Advocacy

We recently announced the launch of a new #SafetyReminder campaign to provide the traveling public with a few friendly reminders as unprecedented stay-at-home restrictions are eased and we slowly resume air, rail, road, and marine travel.

During this return to “normalcy,” we’re especially concerned about young drivers. That’s why we partnered with Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) to host a virtual get together to reach out to teen drivers and their parents.

It’s an understatement to say that 2020’s young drivers have seen a lot in a short time. Like the rest of us, teens have done their part to slow the spread of the coronavirus through self-quarantine, protecting both themselves and others. Now that the country is slowly reopening, it’s time to return our focus to what’s most deadly to young drivers and their peers. It’s time to think not only about socially distancing ourselves, but also about isolating our cars from hazards like vulnerable road users, roadside obstacles, and even other cars. It’s time for a reminder about the biggest threat to teens’ lives: traffic crashes.

Parents have always passed the car keys to the next generation with trembling hands, and for good reason. Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for every age group between 1 and 44. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of fatal injury for people between the ages of 15 and 44. So, when it’s time to return to the road, we all need to be aware of the “danger zones” for young drivers:

  1. Inexperience
  2. Driving with teen passengers
  3. Nighttime driving
  4. Not using seat belts
  5. Distraction
  6. Drowsiness
  7. Impairment
  8. Reckless driving

Although it’s good for young drivers—and their parents—to refresh their knowledge of all the danger zones, they should be aware that our recent isolation may have increased risk in certain danger zone categories. For example, stay-at-home orders have hampered new drivers’ ability to gain experience and start to internalize many of the actions that will become second nature with more time behind the wheel. Any skills even the most seasoned driver had before lockdown will be rusty; that’s compounded for new drivers who have had far less time to practice behind the wheel. Beyond that, young drivers may not weigh risk as carefully as their adult counterparts, and the excitement of getting back on the road may easily manifest as risky behavior.

Here’s another consideration that teens and their parents might overlook: driving with teen passengers not only makes it harder for teen drivers to keep their concentration on the road, but it also flies in the face of social distancing. We understand that it’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together with people outside our homes, and teen drivers are probably the most eager of anyone to reunite with their friends. But reunions don’t belong in the same car, where distraction can be as contagious as a virus. Nothing good is going to come from getting behind the wheel if those reunions involve illegal use of alcohol or other drugs, or they go late into the night, or a driver is running on little sleep.

While distraction from passengers is one risk to avoid, driving while distracted by personal electronic devices—which was deadly before the pandemic—is potentially even deadlier now, given how accustomed we’ve become to practicing virtual contact. The always-connected world that helped us be resilient during this isolating time can also make us vulnerable to danger if we continue that constant connection while behind the wheel. No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.

Even age-old risky behaviors, like speeding, that have always been a pitfall for young drivers pose an increased danger following isolation. The roads have been emptier for months, and some drivers have taken advantage, driving unimpeded at breakneck speed. Even on nearly empty roads, drivers need to leave the lead foot at home and keep an eye out for those who treat the less-crowded roads like their personal speedways. Most importantly, drivers need to make sure they—and their passengers—are always using seat belts, in case the high-risk driver in the next lane makes a bad decision.

Teens, for all your admirable resilience in the face of today’s challenges, you are still our most vulnerable and inexperienced road users. You’re going to be a great generation of adults before long; let us help make sure you make it there.

Parents and guardians, don’t send your teens back out on the road unprepared. Talk to your teens about the key components of driving and set the example for safe driving. A study by Liberty Mutual and SADD found that parents are setting a poor example for teens by engaging in unsafe driving behaviors, such as texting and driving, and are not listening to their kids’ warnings. Forty-one percent of teens say their parents continue these unsafe behaviors even after their teens ask them to stop, and 28 percent of teens say their parents justify unsafe behavior.  Take a moment to consider how to keep your young drivers safe, how to help them make good choices, and what example you’re setting. Take time to outline the key risks of driving. If you need a reminder, visit the websites of expert organizations like NHTSA and the CDC. And remember: your example is the most powerful instructor. Teens learn by example.

It’s been said that insisting on one’s rights without accepting one’s responsibilities is not freedom but adolescence. As somebody who works in youth safety outreach, I assure you, that’s an insult to today’s adolescents, who have used their voices and actions to demonstrate that they understand the role of conscience, mindfulness, and selfless service. I have no doubt this resilient group—many of whom gave up rites of passage, like prom and in-person graduation, to self-quarantine and protect those around them—can come back to the driving task with a renewed understanding of their profound responsibilities behind the wheel.

Our virtual joint event with SADD will take place on May 27, 2020, and we want to hear from parents and youth about the challenges and successes of returning to the road. We’ll also discuss resources that everyone can use to promote safer driving, whether they’re talking to peers, parents, or teens.

NTSB & SADD Transportation Safety Youth Leader Check-in

Teens, take care as you reenter the roadway. Don’t let your freedom from isolation end in unnecessary injury or death—for you or those around you. I know it will feel amazing to get back to some kind of normal, but don’t let your sacrifices of the past few months be in vain.

Episode 33: Chairman Robert Sumwalt

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt talks about NTSB’s communications, leadership, and operations during this period especially as it relates to our mission. Chairman Sumwalt also discusses how the agency is maximizing the use of virtual platforms to support its day-to-day operations and shares important transportation safety reminders as the nation re-opens.

Chairman Sumwalt’s full bio is available here.

Previously released podcasts featuring Chairman Sumwalt are available here.

Get the latest episode on Apple Podcasts , on Google Play, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: https://www.blubrry.com/behind_the_scene_ntsb/


Motorcycle Safety: Your Mindset Makes All the Difference

By Chris O’Neil, Chief, NTSB Media Relations

Motorcycle Blog 1
The blog author makes a left-hand turn through a four-way intersection during a group ride. (Photo by Larry G. Carmon)

May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month and, although the number of motorcyclists killed in crashes dropped again in 2018, motorcycle riders remain overrepresented in overall highway traffic deaths. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, per miles traveled, motorcyclists are 28 times more likely to die in a crash than are passenger car occupants.

With that thought in mind, I want to discuss one of the most important factors in motorcycle safety—your mindset.

Revzilla recently posted an article by Lance Oliver that speaks to a rider’s mindset, and his piece really resonated with me in both my professional capacity here at the NTSB, and personally as a Harley Davidson rider. Essentially, Oliver says there are three things every rider should believe:

    1. Ride like everyone in a car is trying to kill you.
    2. Every crash is avoidable.
    3. When in a bad way in a curve, believe you can make it.

Every time we saddle up, we accept more risk than the average highway user. One way to mitigate that risk is to presume other motorists are going to do bad things at the worst possible moment, and to plan for that eventuality. I’m not saying motorists intentionally make bad decisions designed to harm you, but an ultra-defensive mindset can help you anticipate and plan for others’ actions that are beyond your control and that can potentially cause you serious bodily harm. Riding a motorcycle is akin to a moving chess match, where riders are scanning (search, evaluate, execute) 12 seconds ahead to think “what if?” and planning an escape route to safety or another plan of action to eliminate or mitigate a safety threat. Having a mindset that others’ driving can kill you isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic.

Every crash is avoidable—which is why we at the NTSB say “crash” instead of “accident.” Having a mindset guided by the principle that crashes are preventable forces a rider to seek ways to identify risks and threats that could result in a crash, and to understand what to do to eliminate or mitigate the risks and threats to prevent or avoid the crash. This mindset begins before we throw a leg over our machine and can also be applied in trip/route planning (weather considerations, road conditions, experience level for intended route, etc.) and in bike maintenance (ensuring completion of a pre-ride T-CLOCS [tires/controls/lights/oil/chassis/stand]) for every ride. Believing every crash is avoidable leads good riders to continually examine how they ride and evaluate their skills to determine if they need refresher training. It should also force a good rider to evaluate completed rides, noting what could have been done better or more safely, or remembering actions they took that mitigated or eliminated a threat. Operating under the principle that crashes are preventable even influences motorcycle selection. Motorcyclists with an ultra-defensive mindset look for motorcycles with advanced stability control systems, antilock braking systems, and enhanced lighting that helps make the motorcycle more visible to other drivers.

One quick caveat here: the belief that every crash is avoidable does not absolve riders and their passengers from practicing ATGATT (all the gear, all the time), because, although avoidable, crashes still happen, and in 2018, they killed nearly 5,000 motorcyclists.

If adherence to the first two parts of the ultra-defensive mindset have failed to keep us from getting into the danger zone, Oliver’s third belief—you can make this—can mean the difference between coming home safely or taking a trip to the hospital. Oliver illustrates this third belief using the example of entering a curve with too much speed and succumbing to the fear that you won’t make it, then panicking or giving up. Oliver posits that, at that moment, it’s time to look farther ahead to the exit of the curve (at where you want to go, not at where you’re afraid of going), lean more, and work to make the curve. I believe riders can apply this mindset to a variety of emergent situations while riding, such as encountering road debris, washouts, standing water, or rain slickened tar snakes. How tightly a rider holds to this belief is likely to be tied to his or her level of riding experience, training, and confidence.

An ultra-defensive mindset can help novices and experienced riders alike consistently identify, evaluate, and mitigate risks and threats while still enjoying the unique freedom and exhilaration that come from riding a motorcycle. More than that, it can help them make it safely to their next ride.

Episode 32: Member Thomas Chapman

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, Member Thomas Chapman talks about his journey to the NTSB, his work before joining the Board and what he hopes to accomplish as an NTSB Board member.

Member Chapman’s full bio is available here.

Get the latest episode on Apple Podcasts , on Google PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: https://www.blubrry.com/behind_the_scene_ntsb/