Truck-Train Collisions and Safety Regulations

As a truck accident lawyer, I have handled many train/tractor trailer collisions on behalf of injured bystanders and the injured railroad engineer or conductor.

In 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a suit, Continental Improvement Co. v. Stead, involving the collision of a train and a wagon in Lima, Indiana. The Court was tasked with deciding who was responsible for the damages resulting from the collision. The Court’s decision made it clear that rail companies and travelers on the highway who encounter a public crossing have a shared responsibility for safety. This “mutual and reciprocal” responsibility, the Court decided, meant that the rail company had to warn travelers of an approaching train, and travelers had to exercise “extraordinary care and diligence” when approaching a crossing.

The Court stated further that, because of the “character” and “momentum” of a train, it is the train in such circumstances that has the right of way. What’s more, the Court stated, “those who are crossing a railroad track are bound to … ascertain whether a train is approaching”, essentially to stop, look, and listen for approaching trains.

Today’s laws reflect the common sense wisdom of that long-ago Court decision. By law, a commercial truck driver must drive at a speed that is slow enough that he or she can stop before crossing a railroad track, using caution to make certain the course is clear. Many buses and trucks, like those carrying hazardous materials, are required to stop between 15 and 50 feet from the tracks, listen, and look in each direction to make certain that a train is not approaching. Only then may the driver cross the track, and when doing so the driver may not shift gears. These laws are clear and helpful, yet when compliance lags, collisions result.

With improved safety in mind, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in 1998 that would have prohibited the driver of a commercial motor vehicle from driving onto a highway-railroad grade crossing without sufficient space to drive completely through the crossing without stopping and leaving a portion of the vehicle across the tracks. This NPRM was issued in response to section 112 of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Authorization Act of 1994. According to the U.S. Senate committee that created section 112, its purpose was to improve safety at highway-rail crossings after several fatal accidents occurred at such sites when drivers of commercial motor vehicles failed to use proper caution while crossing.

Unfortunately, in 2006 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) withdrew the NPRM, citing negative comments received in response to the safety measure. Objections to the NPRM came from groups that included Guttman Oil Co., The American Trucking Associations, and Thompson Trucking, most arguing that the measure would be difficult to comply with and that it was virtually impossible to implement.

A rule may be difficult to comply with or to implement, but how much more difficult is it to deal with the tragic aftermath when such a rule is ignored?

Most people don’t realize that a train travelling up to 60 miles per hour can take a mile to come to a stop. When an obstruction such as a truck is in the path of his train, an engineer can only apply the emergency brake and wait. I have represented many railroad crewmembers who have suffered the consequences of a train and large truck collision, and it has been my experience that the truck driver and the truck company many times have the bulk of the responsibility in these cases. Of course, in addition to driver diligence, it is the railroads’ responsibility to design crossings to give adequate warning of oncoming trains.

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