August 8, 2008
U.S. Department of Transportation
Dockets Management Facility
1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.
Washington, DC 20590
Re: National Standards for Traffic Control Devices; the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways; Revision (Docket No. FHWA-2007-28977)
Dear Sir or Madam:
The American Association for Justice (AAJ), formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA®), hereby submits comments in response to the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) proposed amendments to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). See 73 Fed. Reg. 268.
AAJ, with members in the United States, Canada and abroad, is the world’s largest trial bar. It was established in 1946 to safeguard victims’ rights, strengthen the civil justice system, promote injury prevention, and foster the disclosure of information critical to public health and safety. Members of AAJ represent victims of railroad derailments and crashes at highway rail-grade crossings. AAJ is extremely concerned with the FHWA’s proposal to require that a Yield or Stop sign be installed at all passive highway-rail grade crossings, except where train crews always provide flagging of the crossing to road users. The FHWA has not provided any rationale for its sudden decision to deviate from its earlier position that a State or local highway agency must conduct an engineering analysis to properly evaluate the needs of each crossing on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, researchers have determined that the addition of Stop signs at all crossings would not serve to limit crashes but, instead, would increase the incidence of collisions and injuries. Accordingly, AAJ requests that the FHWA eliminate this item from its proposed amendments.
The FHWA must withdraw its proposed amendment which would require the installation of a Yield or Stop sign at all private highway-rail grade crossings. Past editions of the MUTCD have provided that the use of a particular warning device at a location should be made on the basis of an engineering study. The agency provides no rationale for its sudden decision to require the use of either sign at all crossings without regard to engineering analysis. Nor has the agency provided any reason why State and local highway agencies should not take the time to properly research which warning device would best protect Americans at a particular crossing. While the Manual provides standards for the use of certain traffic devices, it should not serve as a replacement for sound engineering judgment.
The FHWA must not mandate the blanket installation of Stop signs at private highway-rail grade crossings. The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) already has studied the issue of whether to require Stop signs at all crossings. They indicate that the “blanket application of Stop signs to a particular class or type of roadway is not recommended.” Researchers have found that compliance with Stop signs is generally poor and that leads to an increased risk of rear-end collisions. A State or local highway authority should only install a Stop sign based on an engineering study that includes an evaluation of active controls at the crossing.
There are also two major issues with putting up a Stop sign without doing an engineering analysis – train speed and visibility. It takes approximately ten to fifteen seconds for large vehicles, such as semi-tractor trailers, cement trucks, school buses, to clear a railroad crossing. A high speed train may be completely out of sight when the driver makes the determination that the crossing is clear. An Amtrak train operating at 80 miles per hour will be more than 1/4 mile away when the vehicle starts across the tracks. At 80 mph, the driver requires 1920 feet of visibility when starting from the stopped position. At that point, the train is not even providing audible warnings, because a train horn generally is initiated at 1/4 mile from the crossing. A Stop sign would not prevent this incident. This scenario illustrates that crossings involving high speed trains should not have Stop signs under any circumstances.
Further, Stop signs are sometimes placed at a point too far from the crossing where the driver does not have a clear view of approaching trains. Worse yet are crossings where Stop signs are placed and there is insufficient sight distance, regardless of how close the Stop sign is located to the tracks. In these cases, the driver stops as required, looks both ways and sees no trains approaching. The driver thinks it is safe to proceed but ends up directly in the path of an approaching train leading to a collision. Therefore, Stop signs should never be placed at crossings without an engineering visibility study for all quadrants of the crossing.
A study reported in the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Journal looked at four different warning devices, including Stop signs, which were installed at crossings in seven Midwestern states over a 10-year period (1994-2003). The study clearly indicated that the indiscriminate placement of Stop signs as a warning device did not decrease the collision rates at these crossings. The data found that those highway-rail crossings with Stop signs had the highest overall collision rate of 4.76 per 100 MCV (millions of crossing vehicles). The ten years of collision data supported these findings and illustrated that “collisions at highway-rail grade crossings where Stop signs were installed were more likely to occur than with any other form of warning system.”
The researchers found that when highway authorities placed Stop signs at roadways with low-volume intersecting traffic, compliance with those signs decreased as cross-traffic volume increased. Some theorized that drivers at low-volume intersections ascribe less meaning to Stop signs than the law intends. Others believed that drivers misjudged the speed of trains. In either case, it is clear that the indiscriminate placement of Stop signs without regard to the particular characteristics of the individual highway-rail grade crossing will not lead to a decrease in injuries and fatalities – one of the goals of the FHWA. Instead, the occurrence of serious injury or death at the crossing will increase.
Given this ten-year study, it is unclear why the FHWA would suddenly require the use of a Stop sign at every crossing in America. There is nothing to indicate that the results of this study would have changed in recent years. The only logical conclusion, therefore, is to continue with the recommendation in the current version of the MUTCD, which allows State and local highway agencies to install Stop signs at crossings at their own discretion. Any decision to indiscriminately require the use of Stop signs is dangerous for the millions of Americans that encounter highway-rail grade crossings on a daily basis.
Researchers have suggested that previous agency regulations regarding Stop signs were designed to reduce liability on the party of railroads, “even though all previous evidence has suggested that such indiscriminate use would be detrimental and would not promote safety interests.” Similarly, the agency’s proposal to require Yield or Stop signs at all crossings would be detrimental and would not promote safety interests. As stated above, there are many instances in which a clearly visible Stop sign is not sufficient to prevent injuries, particularly if these signs are installed without prior engineering analysis. In addition, the new requirement would afford immunity for those entities charged with monitoring such crossings where they clearly should not be entitled. The stories below illustrate the dangers of allowing railroads or local agencies to satisfy their safety responsibilities through blanket application of passive warning devices at all highway-rail grade crossings.
In each of these cases, the crossings were equipped with Stop signs and other passive warning devices. Yet, in each situation, the driver was struck and severely injured or killed where it was clear that active warning devices should be used. The FHWA will endanger more Americans if it mandates the indiscriminate placement of Yield or Stop signs at all crossings without engineering analysis.
AAJ appreciates the opportunity to submit these comments in response to the agency’s proposed amendments to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. If you have any questions or comments, please contact Gerie Voss, AAJ’s Director of Regulatory Affairs at (202) 965-3500 ext. 748.
American Association for Justice
The proposed MUTCD text for this change would be included in Section 8B.08 (page 8B-6 of the 2003 version of the MUTCD). See National Standards for Traffic Control Devices; the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways; Revision, 73 Fed. Reg. 268, 326 (proposed Jan. 2, 2008).
NCHRP Report 470, Traffic-Control Devices for Passive Highway-Rail Grade Crossings, at: http://onlinepubs.trb.org/Onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_470-b.pdf.
U.S. Dept. of Transportation's Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Handbook, 2nd Edition, calculates 16.3 seconds for a 65 foot truck crossing a single track at 90 degrees to safely clear the crossing. See p.133, Table 36.
Table 36 referenced in footnote 5 shows the required sight distances for relevant train speeds for a vehicle starting from a stopped position. For example, for a train traveling at 60 mph, a driver must have a clear view for at least 1440 feet down the tracks in both directions. If the train is traveling at 40 mph, then the driver must be able to see at least 960 feet in both directions. The difference in sight distance required for a vehicle slowing at the crossing to 20 mph and a vehicle stopping is more than twice the distance. If a 65 foot truck approached the crossing at 20 mph, it would only need 310 feet of clear visibility for a 30 mph train. However, if the truck is required to stop, then the driver would need 720 feet of clear visibility.
Raub (citing Russel, E.R. and A. Burnham, A Review of Past and Present Research, Guidance and Practice of the Proper Use of Stop Signs at Rail-Highway Grade Crossings, Proceedings of the ITE International Conference (1999)).