Research highlights level crossing dangers
20 February 2019
Improving safety at railway level crossings will only happen if there is a cohesive and joint effort by central and local Government, rail, road and trucking organisations and Police according to New Zealand's heavy vehicle drivers.
This finding comes from research recently carried out for rail safety organisation TRACKSAFE NZ, in collaboration with KiwiRail, NZ Transport Agency and the Road Transport Forum.
TrackSAFE NZ Manager Megan Drayton says while collisions between trains and heavy vehicles are relatively infrequent compared to vehicle to vehicle accidents on the road, they have the potential for considerable loss of life and serious trauma.
"These incidents are devastating for everyone affected. Each and every collision has a traumatic impact not just on the victims and their friends and families, but also the wider community and the emergency services and rail staff involved.
The research highlighted that drivers (especially newly qualified drivers), need to educate themselves and take time to plan and know their route and their vehicle.
"The simple steps of stopping, looking and listening as well as focusing on the task at hand were the key messages that the industry thinks are important," Ms Drayton says.
However agencies also have a role to play in improving safety at level crossings, and drivers made a number of suggestions. "These included improving visibility, better signage, road infrastructure improvements and using technology such as apps to alert drivers to dangerous crossings."
The study is the first in New Zealand to specifically focus on the views of truck drivers operating on and around railway level crossings. It found drivers are acutely aware of the dangers associated with some railway level crossings.
"The drivers told us that they developed strategies to try to make crossing the tracks safer, including using spotters, taking alternative routes and stopping, looking and listening for trains. However, this can all be in vain if visibility is poor, or if drivers are forced to stop with part of their vehicle on the railway tracks," says Ms Drayton.
"More than 400 public level crossings in New Zealand, around 31 per cent of all level crossings, have been identified as having a short stacking distance. This means a long vehicle will not be able to completely clear the level crossing when it is stopped at an adjacent road intersection.
"Heavy vehicle drivers worry that this situation will only get worse as bigger trucks become more common on New Zealand roads and the number of trains increase."
"Unexpectedly, the research also found that heavy vehicle drivers generally believe that railway level crossings are safer than roads, although this depends on the type and location of the crossing, on driver experience and situational awareness, Ms Drayton says.
"Heavy vehicle drivers do not think that New Zealand roads are generally that safe. They put this down to poor driving standards - speeding, dangerous overtaking, indecisiveness, texting - as much as they do to the state of the road network itself."
The research also found that heavy vehicle drivers believe most New Zealand motorists don't understand the challenges of driving a heavy vehicle and why heavy vehicle drivers take the actions they do.
"If motorists understood the challenges of driving a big truck it would improve safety on the roads generally as well as at level crossings."
The research was carried out by Wellington-based research company UMR. It included a survey of around 400 drivers measuring their knowledge and behaviours around level crossings. This was followed by focus groups in Auckland, Christchurch and Palmerston North that further explored the perceptions, attitudes and knowledge of drivers.
The research is now being circulated widely throughout the industry for consideration. It is hoped that the findings will help in the development of a new safety campaign around level crossings in 2019 as well as inform engineering improvements to better accommodate heavy vehicles at level crossings.