HazMat Truck-Rail Grade Crossing Stopping Requirements Must Change
Current Requirements Pose Unacceptable Dangers to Passenger Vehicle Drivers
According to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis, in 2018 there were 2,205 highway-rail grade-crossing incidents, resulting in 272 fatalities and over 800 injured persons. But, that alarming data isn’t capturing the entire picture. At many grade crossings, the real fatality risk is that a passenger vehicle driver dies when they rear end a commercial truck. If the two vehicles don’t encounter a train, then a highway-rail grade accident and/or death isn’t added to the record.
Regulations adopted by the Interstate Commerce Commission in the 1930s require all trucks transporting hazardous materials to come to a complete stop at all highway-rail grade-crossings, regardless of whether a train is approaching the crossing. While this requirement makes sense in many urban and suburban areas, exurban and rural tracks often merely cross the road with only a sign marking them. In exurban and rural areas, especially at night, passenger car drivers have no reason to expect that the truck in front of them must stop. The predictable result occurs: the truck comes to a stop—often a hard brake stop due to the lack of advance roadside marking— and the passenger vehicle rams into the truck.
In this Instance, Hazmat Trucks Should be Treated Like All Other Trucks
These vehicles should be released from the requirement to come to a full stop at these crossings. Instead, hazmat trucks should be regulated like all other trucks at highway-rail grade crossings. Those trucks must still exercise a surfeit of caution, slowing down to cross and stopping for incoming trains. But, they do not stop just because any set of train tracks crosses the highway.
A Modern U.S. Transportation System Needs Modernized Regulations
There are major differences between when the Interstate Commerce Commission first adopted the stopping requirement and today. First, there was no requirement that the ICC balance the regulatory benefits against potential costs, as would precede a draft regulation today. Second, the nation’s entire transportation environment was wildly different: passenger trains prevailed over freight trains, commercial trucking was a newer and less pervasive operation, and hazardous materials’ packaging requirements were non-existent, to name just a few.
The Federal Railroad Administration imposes maximum running speeds on railroad tracks based upon their quality and environment; these rural tracks are likely to be the classes that have the lowest maximum running speeds. Accordingly, requiring the truck to slow down, but not to come to a full—and often, abrupt—stop, is a sensible requirement.
Finally, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has commissioned a study about just this issue. Should the FMCSA study quantitatively demonstrate what NTTC’s members anecdotal claims show, there will be a concrete evidence that the current stopping requirement causes fatalities. NTTC urges FMCSA and the Congress to work together to mitigate this issue by releasing the report and then amending the regulations to develop a safer highway system.