Drivers’ Perceptions of Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Their Behavior

University  University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL)
Principal Investigators  Aemal Khattak, Ph.D., Civil Engineering (PI)
PI Contact Information  262D Whittier Research Center
P.O. Box 830851
Lincoln, NE 68583-0851
Office (402) 472-8126
Funding Source(s) and Amounts Provided (by each agency or organization)  Federal Funds (USDOT UTC Program): $74,691
Cost Share Funds (UNL): $37,346
Total Project Cost  $112,037
Agency ID or Contract Number  DTRT13-G-UTC59
Start and End Dates November 2013 — December 2016
Brief Description of Research Project  The focus of this project was to investigate motor vehicle drivers’ perceptions of safety and their behaviors at highway-rail grade crossings (HRGCs) to obtain insights for improving safety at these locations. During 2012, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reported 1,970 crashes at HRGCs in the U.S. that involved 272 fatalities and 951 injuries. Therefore, there is a need for improving public safety at HRGCs.

Motor vehicle drivers are expected to yield the right-of-way to oncoming trains since trains cannot stop on short notice. Therefore, almost all train-motor vehicle crashes at HRGCs are due to encroachments by motor vehicle drivers. Such crashes are due to a variety of reasons on part of motor vehicle drivers including misunderstandings of train warning signs, aggressive/distracted driving, or willful neglect of crossing signs, signals, and gates. However, drivers’ perceptions of safety at HRGCs and behaviors are not well-understood and there is a need for obtaining insights into their behaviors at HRGCs.

In this project, the researchers investigated motor vehicle drivers’ characteristics, their perceptions of safety at crossings, understanding and comprehension of traffic signs/signals at crossings, and their self-reported unsafe maneuvers at HRGCs in different Nebraska cities. A three-stage mail contact survey design was used that included an initial mail notification to households in Nebraska, a survey questionnaire mailing, and a postcard reminder about mailing back the completed questionnaire. The researchers analyzed collected survey data using statistical summaries and models and revealed drivers’ characteristics involved in unsafe maneuvers at HRGCs. The study found that drivers generally had good knowledge of safely driving negotiating HRGCs. However, some drivers lacked knowledge of certain safety aspects, such as violations under ascending gates, proper actions when emergencies occur, and the correct interpretation of some traffic signs at HRGCs. Drivers’ levels of knowledge was associated with factors such as outreach of safety education programs, frequency of using HRGCs, years of driving experience, and the drivers’ education levels. The research also found that drivers with negative/indifferent attitude towards safety at HRGCs, less knowledge of driving at HRGCs, higher education levels, higher income, frequent users of HRGCs and younger and female drivers were more likely to involve themselves in inattentive driving at HRGCs. Therefore, future educational programs advocating attentive driving could be targeted to these groups of drivers.
Keywords highway-railway grade crossings, HRGC, drivers’ perceptions of HRGC, HRGC survey research 
Describe Implementation of Research Outcomes (or why not implemented) Place Any Photos Here Based on the results of the surveys, several recommendations were made. Educational programs for adult drivers need to be developed before they can be implemented. These programs should focus on improving safety at HRGCs, and they should be targeted to drivers that need them the most, such as drivers with less driving experience, with higher intent of violation, with less experience using HRGCs, and with relatively lower education levels.
Impacts/Benefits of Implementation (actual, not anticipated) The recommended educational programs have not been developed or implemented yet. However, the work performed under this project has led to the following doctoral dissertation:
  • Zhao, S., "An investigation of Motor Vehicle Driver Inattention and its Effects at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings," Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, August 2016.
Moreover, a detailed report that summarizes all the work performed under this project is made available and can be downloaded from the UTCRS website using the link provided below.
Project Website