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11 tips that could save your life at a railroad crossing

Tom J. Bechman car sitting in front of train tracks
SHOW RESPECT: Stopping well in front of the railroad tracks when a train is crossing makes sense, rather than crowding forward near the tracks.
A new Purdue Pesticides Program publication discusses living safely with railroads in rural Indiana.

Wrecks are never fun. There are no winners. But there’s one type of wreck where you’re guaranteed to be the biggest loser every time. That’s any time you tangle with a train at a railroad crossing — in a car, pickup, tractor, combine, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to lose.

Because so many railroad tracks still cross miles and miles of roads in both rural and urban Indiana, Fred Whitford, director of Purdue University Pesticide Programs, prepared a 32-page color publication filled with tips about how to live and farm safely with trains in your community. “Railroad Crossings: Stop, Look, Stay Alive” is Purdue Extension publication PPP-135. You can find it at edustore.purdue.edu or download it for free.

Various experts contributed to the publication, Whitford says. With their help, he compiled this list of 11 actions to take when you approach train tracks. They’re based on tips in the publication.

1. Get quiet. Turn down the radio at every crossing.

2. Look both ways. Look in both directions down the track, and don’t let yourself be distracted by listening to music or talking on the phone.

3. Yield or stop as directed. “Stop” doesn’t mean “slow and go.” It means come to a complete stop.

4. Gauge room on the other side before crossing. Make sure there is room on the other side of the tracks for your vehicle before you cross. Don’t cross if any part of your vehicle might remain within 3 feet of the tracks.

5. Yield to school buses and trucks hauling hazardous materials. They’re required by law to stop no closer than 15 feet and no farther than 50 feet from crossings. Don’t be impatient and try to go around. It’s dangerous and illegal.

6. Don’t shift gears while crossing. Shifting gears increases the risk of stalling on the tracks.

7. If you hear a horn, don’t cross. Assume a train is coming, even if you don’t see it yet. Once you hear the horn, it will be at the crossing in 20 seconds or less.

8. Never drive between lowered gates. Don’t do this, ever! The only exception is if a law enforcement officer or railroad employee controlling the crossing says it’s safe to cross.

9. Wait until the gates rise and lights stop flashing. If you rush it, scratching your paint is the least of your worries. It could be a double set of tracks, with gates staying down for a second train.

10. Practice what you preach. Always look in both directions before crossing the tracks. Make sure this is something you remember to always do, not just say.

11. Know how long it takes to cross. It may take longer than you think. An 80,000-pound semitractor and trailer or an agricultural implement can take 14 to 20 seconds just to cross a single set of railroad tracks.

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