Always better to play it safe at level crossings | Columns

Chip Pew of Operation Lifesaver says Illinois has an exposure problem.

The state ranks second for the number of level crossings and kilometers of track, and has the third largest road network in the country.

It also means a lot of level crossings and a higher probability of vehicle-to-train accidents.

The harvest season has arrived and slower, heavier vehicles are hitting the road.

Pew, state coordinator with Illinois Operation Lifesaver, spoke to FarmWeek and RFD Radio to promote his organization’s message in the hopes it could save even one life.

Operation Lifesaver began almost 50 years ago, and at that time Illinois had 800 accidents and 100 fatalities involving trains. Over the past decade, the average has been 120 accidents and 25 fatalities.

“Our goal is to reach zero,” said Pew, who has investigated more than 500 train deaths. “But no matter what we do from an engineering perspective, what we do from an education perspective, and even how law enforcement helps us enforce these laws, there will be always people who will think that it should be their right to know whether or not they are going to try to beat a train.

“And even if it’s a tie with a train, you lose, you won’t get another chance.”

Pew noted that communities along the high-speed rail corridor will soon see train speeds drop from 79 mph to 90 mph, which means longer warning times for oncoming trains. In some cases, trains will activate crossings unnoticed, and drivers might think the crossing is giving them false information since they cannot see a train.

It also reminds drivers of the Blue Grade Crossing Emergency Notification System signs, which list the crossing number and the phone number of railway authorities who can notify trains of your situation.

For example, if a farmer is driving a slow moving vehicle that will take a long time to cross the crossing, the driver can call the number to find out when the next train is due.

“You can proactively use (the sign) in addition to using it to report (incidents),” Pew said.

A startling statistic is that 25% of train-to-vehicle collisions occur when a vehicle hits the side of a train, Pew said. He noted that the trains hang 3 feet off the sides of the tracks on both sides.

While line of sight at many rural crossings is quite good, Pew warned drivers that trains can appear to be going slowly.

“It can be an optical illusion … beware of the train you see coming down the tracks thinking you are going to have enough time to cross.” It’s always better to play it safe, ”Pew said.

This story was released as part of a cooperative project between the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more information on food and farming, visit

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