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In 1995, a Conrail freight train crashed into a car, killing three Ohio teenagers, including Ryan Moore. The tragedy occurred at an unmarked railroad crossing in rural Starke County. Ryan’s parents, Dennis and Vicky Moore, believed the crash would not have happened if the railroad crossing had proper warning signs, and they sued the railroad company.

Fast-forward 26 years. Ryan’s parents won their lawsuit and established the private nonprofit Angels on Track Foundation dedicated to supporting railroad safety upgrades with the jury award. Throughout the years, the foundation has helped install gates, lights, and signs at railroad crossings across Ohio and report dangerous crossings and highlight the need for gates and lights.

There are more than 30 freight railroads in Ohio that operate about 5,300 miles of the state’s original infrastructure. With this comes more than 5,000 public-grade crossings. The Moores believe the fatal crash involving their son and his friends could have been prevented had the particular crossing in rural Starke County been marked with gates or warning lights. It is now their mission to direct attention to the thousands of railroad crossings in Ohio.

When it comes to the need for drivers to exercise extreme caution at railroad tracks, the numbers speak for themselves. According to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, the state sees 150 collisions involving people with trains on average per year. Nationwide, in 2020 alone, there were 1,889 collisions between cars and trains at train crossings.

Who is Responsible for Railroad System Safety?

The short answer is: it’s a large group effort. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created by the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966 to promote and legislate railroad safety throughout the country. It is one of ten agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, on a smaller scale, railroads are privately owned yet funded with public dollars. Owners and governments share the responsibility for keeping the railroad tracks and the powerful freight trains on top of them safe. 

In Ohio, overseeing the maintenance of the state’s railroad tracks falls to two public agencies, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) and the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC). Daily, workers repair countless gates and signals, fix damaged signs and repaint markings at the train crossings. At the same time, issues at other railroad crossings arise, like burned-out lights and broken gates.  

The bottom line – in a more than 44,000 miles-wide state, all train crossings can not be 100 percent maintained, 100 percent of the time. However, state and transportation officials must not become negligent in their duties to always protect the public from harm.

Safety Tips for Motorists at Railroad Crossings

So what do you do if a crossing gate is down or appears to be broken? Drive around it? No. It is illegal to cross tracks when a train is approaching and warning lights or audible signals are activated. The law states that “no person shall drive any vehicle through, or under any crossing gate or barrier at a railroad crossing while the gate or barrier is closed or is being opened or closed” (Ohio Revised Code 4511.62).

Other tips for safe driving near or across railroad tracks include:

  • Cross legally and safely. The only safe and legal place for anyone to cross railroad tracks is at designated crossings. 
  • Honor lowered gates and flashing lights. Never drive around a lowered gate or ignore a flashing light and drive across the tracks. Remember, the precautions are in place for a reason. Chances are, even if you do not see it yet, a train is ultimately going to approach.
  • Before crossing, be sure there is space on the other side to clear the tracks completely.
  • Watch for “raised crossing’’ signs. Do not cross until you know your vehicle will clear the tracks.
  • Do not stop closer than 15 feet from a rail.
  • Legally, you can not proceed until lights stop flashing, but if lights begin flashing after you start across the tracks, keep going. 

How to Improve and Remove Hazards at Railroad Crossings?

In a joint effort, the FRA and the PUCO invite members of the public to help make Ohio’s railroad tracks safer and run smoother by reporting issues in either one of two ways. Throughout Ohio, at railroad crossings, the agencies have installed “Emergency Notification Signs.’’ The blue signs with white lettering are in place with specific crossing identification numbers for the caller’s concern to be routed to the proper management team. Along with that, PUCO also has an online form for citizens to report issues.

The Angels on Track Foundation also created a tool to help citizens in the quest to curb dangerous railroad crossings. Their “Dangerous Crossing” online form allows individuals to report hazardous railroad situations. The information will be received by the Foundation and made available to the PUCO and the ORDC.

How to Handle a Collision at a Railroad Crossing?

It is crucial to immediately seek medical help to address injuries you have sustained, whether recognized right away or several days later. At the same time, to protect yourself legally and financially, make notes of how the collision occurred and take photos of the crash site. Include pictures of any railroad equipment like gates, signs and lights. Also, if there are overgrown shrubs or structures that potentially block the view at the tracks, note them as well.

If you or someone you know has been injured or worse involving a railroad crossing, it is best to seek legal help from an attorney who understands railroad regulations and legislation. Such injuries and losses can be costly and involve the loss of wages and doctor and hospital bills. While maintaining all of the railroad crossings in Ohio is a daunting task, those charged with keeping the railroads safe must be held accountable. Contact the attorneys at Murray & Murray Co., L.P.A. in Ohio today to discuss your legal options.

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