Guest Column: Raise awareness about rail crossing safety

Published 9:07 pm Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Guest Column by Charlie Zelle

There’s good news and bad news about what’s happening with rail crossing safety in Minnesota.

The good news is that vehicle-train crashes at highway-rail grade level crossings declined over the past 10 years.

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The bad news is that these incidents are far more likely to result in death or serious injury than other types of highway crashes.

Charlie Zelle

Last year in Minnesota, six people died and 19 people were injured at highway-rail crossings. More than just statistics, these people are family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors whose lives were needlessly cut short and changed forever in one brief moment. The majority of these crashes were at crossings with active warning devices such as gates, bells and flashing lights.

Unfortunately, already there have been 15 crashes in the first five months of 2017. Thankfully, there were no fatalities at public crossings, although five injuries were reported.

These are preventable tragedies. This year, MnDOT is spending nearly $10 million to either update existing equipment or install new gates, flashing lights and circuitry on 36 crossings. Our partner, Minnesota Operation Lifesaver, spends countless hours raising public awareness about rail safety. This is a powerful partnership to address a serious problem, but we must now reach out to another critical partner: you.

The top three contributing factors to crashes involve motorists:

1. Failing to yield right of way

2. Disregarding traffic control devices

3. Turning improperly

A train traveling 55 mph takes a mile or more to stop. The force of a train hitting a car equals the force of a car crushing a can. These are sobering facts when you consider the human lives that are at stake.

September is Rail Safety Month in Minnesota and Minnesota Operation Lifesaver is coordinating events across the state to raise awareness and educate the public on how to drive and walk safely around rail crossings.

To eliminate needless rail-related deaths and injuries, we need your help. We all need to choose to obey all traffic control devices, including treating flashing signals as stop signs. We need to put safety first by not racing a train to the crossing, waiting patiently at the tracks until the train passes and never trespassing by walking on or near rail tracks.

If you have children or grandchildren, it’s time to model appropriate safety behavior and talk to them about ways to stay safe around rail crossings.

Talk to them about distracted driving and walking, too, which we all know plays a heavy role these days in all types of crashes.

Together, through awareness and a commitment to making safe choices, we can reduce these tragic rail-related deaths and injuries in Minnesota to zero.

Charlie Zelle is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.