ICT/IDOT Research Makes Safety a Priority for Pedestrians at Urban Railroad Crossings

Approximately 40% of pedestrians and bicyclists in the Chicagoland area say they at least occasionally ignore railroad-crossing warning signs—in some cases, they would even go so far as to walk around a gate designed to keep them off the tracks. While federal reporting shows a marked decrease in train–vehicle collisions in the past decade, the number of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities at railroad crossings has remained constant. These fatalities occur in spite of efforts to educate pedestrians and bicyclists and increase police enforcement.

The aim of the project titled “Pedestrian/Bicyclist Warning Devices and Signs at Highway-Rail and Pathway-Rail Grade Crossings” (R27-096) was to help provide more effective warnings to pedestrians and cyclists. Co-principal investigator Paul Metaxatos of the University of Illinois at Chicago explains that to achieve this goal, it was necessary to understand the reasons pedestrians and bicyclists do not comply with warning signs.

The research was facilitated by Technical Review Panel chair Kyle Armstrong, Engineering and Standards Unit Chief for the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Operations, and was sponsored by IDOT.

Metaxatos and co-principal investigator P.S. Sriraj used a variety of methods in the study, including interviewing state agencies and video-recording pedestrian and bicyclist behaviors at crossings. They also interviewed more than 300 pedestrians and bicyclists. With this information, the research team was able to make several recommendations about ways to better deter railroad-crossing violations.

From their interviews with officials from 25 states, the researchers learned that safety upgrades at dedicated pedestrian crossings are not prioritized as highly as those at highway-rail grade crossings unless the two types of crossings are adjacent to each another—and very rarely are funds scheduled exclusively for dedicated pedestrian grade crossings. In addition, if education and enforcement campaigns are used, they work best when they are sustained over time and employ a variety of techniques to engage the community.

Observations and interviews of pedestrians revealed that certain activities—such as talking or texting on a cell phone, pushing a stroller, or listening to music with earphones—may interfere with environmental awareness. In addition, awareness diminishes with age. The researchers also found that active warning devices (such as flashing light signals or gates) at grade crossings are noticed more frequently by younger pedestrians and bicyclists, while older ones are more likely to notice passive devices (such as warning signs and pavement markings). Additionally, large groups of pedestrians are more likely to commit a violation than lone pedestrians or small groups.

The reasons people gave for ignoring warning signs and devices included believing they had enough time to cross before the train arrived, being in a hurry, being annoyed at having to wait, or seeing others safely cross the tracks even when signals or warnings devices are activated.

Plans for a Safer Future

Metaxatos and Sriraj note that in California, both Caltrain and Metrolink have adopted engineering standards to channel pedestrian traffic from rail grade crossings. Educational outreach activities are conducted for schools, pedestrians, and drivers. Furthermore, considerable effort is made to educate law enforcement personnel about the serious implications of trespassing and the consistent enforcement of existing laws. The researchers recommended that Illinois adopt an approach similar to California’s.

Armstrong emphasizes the value of the project and its findings: “The safety of all IDOT transportation systems is one of our top priorities—this extends beyond motorists to pedestrians and bicyclists as well. As more projects are developed for exclusive railroad pedestrian and pathway crossings, we envision that the findings from this research will help shape the selection and improvement of particular warning devices by both IDOT and the Illinois Commerce Commission at these railroad grade crossings.”

-December 2013