Navigating Railroad Crossings: The Importance of Staying Alert

When a motorist is new to driving, it’s important to have a firm understanding of railroad crossings. What are railroad crossings? What should I do if I encounter a railroad crossing with a gate? How do I handle a crossing without a gate? Even though getting stuck at a railroad crossing can be annoying when you’re in a hurry, ignoring the signal and trying to cross could get you an expensive traffic ticket or land you in the hospital.

What is a Railroad Crossing?

A railroad crossing is a point at which train tracks cross a street or highway. A crossing is typically denoted with a sign several feet before the actual crossing, to warn motorists that train tracks are ahead. Directly before the crossing, a pair of flashing lights will be mounted on a pole to the right of the driver, and a continuous bell will ring when a train is on its way to the intersection.

Most railroad crossings in populated areas have a lightweight lever-style gate that lowers to warn motorists to stop immediately to prevent a collision with an oncoming train though crossings in rural and less-populated areas do not have gates.

What Should You Do if You Encounter a Railroad Crossing?

If you encounter a signaling railroad crossing while driving, it’s important that you bring your vehicle to a full stop before you reach the tracks, regardless of whether or not there is a safety gate blocking the tracks. Though the actual rules vary from state to state, the majority require drivers to stop within 50′, but no less than 15′ from the closest rail of the tracks. This distance provides a buffer zone to prevent damage to the car or motorist injury in the event of flying debris from the train hitting another object.

For passenger cars, railroad crossings that are not signaling can be crossed with caution without stopping. Keep in mind, however, if you’re following a bus with passengers or a truck with hazardous materials, they are required to stop at all railroad crossings, and you will have to stop behind them.

Do Not Try to Cross the Tracks Before the Oncoming Train

Because trains can be up to a mile long and can travel 50 to 60 MPH, the forces pushing the train become so great that it can take up to a mile to come to a stop. More than 500 people each year die or are critically injured when their vehicle is stopped on the tracks at a railroad crossing. It’s illegal to stop vehicles on railway crossings, and if a police officer spots you racing through a signaling crossing, a traffic citation of up to $500 is the result. Motorists should never attempt to race across the railroad crossing to beat the oncoming train.

Safety is our Top Priority

Trains are one of the most efficient means of transportation for important cargo. They help us have food in our markets, fuel at our gas stations, and construction materials for our infrastructure. Though it may be annoying to wait for a long train full of cargo, the safest action you can take is to follow the established traffic rules. Railroad crossings are a critical measure to keep motorists safe while allowing the goods we need to pass safely through the country.

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