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Sign Technology Affects Driver Behavior at Railroad Crossings

Date:
September 17, 2020
Topics:
ITS, Resources
Brighton Street southbound approach to rail crossing in 2018 before the LED-enhanced signs were installed. The Fitchburg Cutoff Bike Path is on the left side of the photo. Image courtesy Google Maps

Federal Railroad Administration statistics from 2018 indicate that the year closed with over 2,200 collisions, 265 fatalities, and more than 800 injuries during highway-rail incidents at railroad crossings.[i] As of September 2019, over 1,600 highway-rail incidents had been reported, 225 casualties, and 575 non-fatal incidents for 2019.[ii] Railroad companies, state departments of transportation, and local jurisdictions are exploring proactive solutions to reduce the number of vehicles that stop on railroad tracks in congested traffic to help prevent future incidents. One example is a 2019 pilot lighting and signage project in Massachusetts to test whether intelligent signage would affect driver behavior around railroad crossings. The U.S. DOT John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) tested flashing LED-equipped warning signs in early 2019 at the request of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) after several recorded injuries and a fatality at the Brighton Street railroad crossing in the town of Belmont. The installation of new R8-8 “DO NOT STOP ON TRACKS” signs enhanced with LED lights is a small-scale ITS pilot that can be replicated at rural or small town crossings where congestion is created during peak times due to construction, employment center work shifts, school traffic, freight train schedules, and special events.    

Project Purposes

Brighton Street in Belmont is a two-lane road, and the area adjacent to the MBTA rail crossing includes school and business land uses, left-turning traffic, bus stops, crosswalks, and a bicycle/pedestrian trail that runs parallel to the tracks.[iii] The Belmont grade crossing includes flashers, roadway gates, and pedestrian gates. R8-8 signs are posted on both directional approaches, along with grade crossing advance warning signs, and pavement markings including “Do Not Block the Box” lettering that was painted on the approach roadways in 2017.   

TAPCO R8-8 sign with flashing LED lights. Image courtesy www.tapconet.com

The technology that the Volpe Center tested consists of 6-volt, solar-powered battery lights that frame the “DO NOT STOP ON TRACKS” sign. During the test period, the lights were set to flash constantly. Once the signs were in place, Volpe analyzed the effect the signage had on driver behavior and whether drivers were more apt to stop in non-dangerous sections of the roadway versus moderately dangerous to very dangerous zones, including the track area itself.  

Outcomes

The Volpe Center analyzed driver stopping behavior before and after the enhanced sign installation. Prior to installation, 1,065 vehicles stopped in one of the identified violation zones for both northbound and southbound directions during the week of March 18, 2019. Of this total, 29.6 percent of northbound vehicles stopped in the most dangerous zone—the track zone—and 30.1 percent of southbound vehicles stopped in the track area.

After the new signage was installed, 20.9 percent of northbound vehicles stopped in the track area, and 20.4 percent of southbound vehicles stopped in the track area. With the LED signs, the percentage of vehicles stopping on the railroad tracks was reduced to just over 20 percent of vehicles stopped. For southbound motorists alone, there was about a 42 percent reduction in vehicles stopping in the most dangerous zone. One practice of Brighton Street drivers that continued, regardless of signage, is that northbound drivers had to stop on or near the tracks at times to let pedestrians or bicyclists who were on the bike path cross Brighton Street. In these incidences, the drivers were rarely stopped on the tracks for long.[iv] Overall, the flashing LED signs have been effective in reducing the number of vehicles stopping on the tracks at the Belmont location.

Resources

The cost of the LED-enhanced signs depends on manufacturer. The Volpe Center tested signs from two companies, TSC and TAPCO.  An LED-enhanced sign with mounting brackets from TSC cost $1,740 and TAPCO’s sign was approximately $1,600. A sign with a pole and base cost approximately $3,300 for the Belmont, MA signage project. A copy of the full project and analysis report is available through the U.S. DOT’s National Transportation Library at https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov/view/dot/41694.


[i] Operation Lifesaver. Collisions & Casualties by Year (2019). https://oli.org/track-statistics/collisions-casualties-year

[ii] Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis (2019). https://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/OfficeofSafety/publicsite/Query/gxrtally1.aspx

[iii] U.S. DOT, Federal Railroad Administration (2019). Effectiveness of LED-Enhanced Signs in Reducing Incidents of Vehicles Stopping on Tracks, https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov/view/dot/41694

[iv] U.S. DOT, Federal Railroad Administration (2019).

This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020. It was primarily authored by NADO Program Manager Rachel Beyerle and NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. This work is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under requisition number HOIT190194PR. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.