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Most train crashes in Wisconsin happen with no safety signals; driver may be held responsible

Pew Charitable Trusts found that of the 128,000 public railroad crossings in the U.S., only a third have gates and flashing lights
Posted at 5:17 PM, Apr 24, 2023

WAUWATOSA, Wis. — The high-pitched ding of the train safety crossing signals along with the flashing lights is usually what alerts drivers a train is coming. However, those safety features are not always easy to find. The majority of train crashes that happen in Wisconsin occur in places missing safe guards.

Passive train crossing on Walnut Road near Mayfair Road in Wauwatosa with no safety gates or flashing lights to alert drivers.

Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit that promotes safety around the rails, says it can be up to the railroad company, the state, or the local municipality to decide what safety signals go up.

Pew Charitable Trusts found that of the 128,000 public railroad crossings in the U.S., only a third have gates and flashing lights. Wisconsin attorney Jason Studinski specializes in transportation and says it causes a lot of serious crashes.

"Every time you talk about a train crash versus any vehicle at a train grade crossing like the crash today, you're talking about a national problem that is really devastating communities,” said Studinski.
According to Operation Lifesaver, a majority of train crashes in Wisconsin happen at crossings without those safety features. Those are called passive crossings.

Union Pacific train about to cross over Walnut Road in Wauwatosa where there are no safety signals.

"Last year, we had 40 train crashes and the majority of Wisconsin has over 4,000 crossing the state, and two-thirds of those crashes happened at passive crossings,” said Gary Koerner, Wisconsin state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver.

Studinski says because of the licenses granted to truck drivers they are typically required to take extra precautions around railroad crossings to make sure it is clear. But he says all drivers can be held responsible for a crash.

Jason Studinski, Wisconsin attorney

"As a motorist who is driving, you still have a responsibility to maintain, look out and control your vehicle. Again, I would always issue the caveat that there's a question about whether the railroad should have done more to safeguard the track. But, nonetheless, an individual driver's responsibility will always be evaluated,” said Studinski.

Vehicle stops at railroad crossing that does not have any safety signals.

Operation Lifesaver reminds people the yellow railroad crossing sign is sometimes the only warning a driver will get that there is a crossing. So when you see that sign, slow down and never try to beat a train.

"There's nothing there, no lights, no gates; yeah, slow down. Look down the tracks both ways to make sure there isn't a train coming. You start crossing it, you see the train. It is too late,” said Koerner.

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Gary Koerner, Wisconsin state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver

Operation Lifesaver also reminds people it is illegal and dangerous to drive around any safety gates or through flashing red signals. The same is true if you are a pedestrian or a bicyclist.

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