Factors Affecting Collisions at Gated Rail-Highway Crossings: A Northeastern Illinois Case Study
Illinois Department of Transportation
Paul Metaxatos, P.S. Sriraj, Siim Sööt and Joseph DiJohn
Completed:February 2001-October 2001
The objective of the study is to develop an understanding of crossing-specific factors that may have an impact on the number of collisions in rail-highway crossings, and to determine whether collision rates at gated crossings in the Chicago region that have honored whistle bans are statistically different than the collision rates at crossings where the train whistle is routinely sounded.
The national average number of such collisions per year in the mid-1990s has been around 4000 across all the rail crossings in the nation. The average number of deaths resulting from these collisions has been around 400 per year. The FRA found that whistle-ban crossings averaged 84 percent more collisions than crossings with whistle blowing. As a result, the FRA mandated an end to whistle bans all over the country. The six-county northeastern Illinois region with the city of Chicago as its hub, however, bucked the national trend and thus formed an "anomaly" with respect to whistle bans. Moreover, the use of whistles at crossings was, until then, not governed by a national mandate and instead was dependent on local laws. This led to a situation where rail crossings within the same state more often than not had different stipulations regarding the blowing of whistles at the different crossings in the state. The reversal of the national trend in the Chicagoland area gave local and municipal agencies the much needed reason to revert to banning whistles in the region, and to spare the communities adjacent to the crossings from the noise of incessant train whistles. Follow-up studies were performed at the behest of many local agencies and comments have been sent to the FRA. These comments supported exemptions from locomotive horns if a community's accident experience was under a specified threshold.
The study will use an updated whistle-ban database and accidents over 12 years to analyze collision rates for crossings within the Chicago region based on the presence of a whistle ban.
The analysis shows that it is precarious to associate whistle bans with collision proneness and higher collision frequencies at gated rail-highway crossings. There are, in fact, a number of factors or combinations of factors that are also relevant to the safety and operational characteristics of the crossings. This study underscores the complexity of the assessment of the factors associated with rail-crossing accidents. It also demonstrates that pubic policy decisions cannot be based on simplistic assumptions connecting whistle bans to increases in the number of accidents at gated crossings.