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Fatalities From Motor-Vehicle Collisions With Trains -- Kansas, 1990-1994

During 1983-1992, a total of 5831 deaths in the United States were attributed to motor-vehicle collisions with trains. * During that same period, Kansas had the third highest death rate in the United States from motor-vehicle collisions with trains, and the annual rate for the state (0.8 per 100,000 persons) was approximately four times the national rate (0.2 deaths per 100,000 persons). To identify approaches for preventing such collisions, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) characterized all fatal motor-vehicle collisions with trains at highway-rail grade crossings ** in the state from 1990 through 1994. This report summarizes the results of that study.

Information about motor-vehicle collisions with trains was obtained from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Kansas Corporation Commission, which receive incident reports from railroads following motor-vehicle collisions with trains. Specific information about drivers involved in fatal collisions with trains (e.g., age, sex, and blood alcohol content {BAC}) was obtained from the Kansas Department of Transportation, the Office of Vital Statistics in the KDHE, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Additional information was obtained from published newspaper reports.

During 1990-1994, a total of 510 motor-vehicle collisions with trains occurred in Kansas, representing annual rates of 4.0 collisions per 100,000 persons and 4.2 collisions per 1 billion vehicle-miles driven. Injuries to 233 persons (167 nonfatal and 66 fatal) were reported in 186 (36%) collisions, of which 53 (10%) resulted in at least one fatality. Of these 53 collisions, drivers were killed in 52.

Forty-four (83%) of the 53 motor-vehicle drivers involved in fatal collisions were male; in comparison, 50% of all licensed drivers in the state during 1992 were male (rate ratio=4.9; 95% confidence interval=2.4-10.0). The median age of drivers was 33 years (range: 14-86 years); three (6%) were aged less than 18 years and nine (17%) were aged greater than or equal to 65 years, a pattern of age distribution similar to that for all licensed drivers in Kansas.

Of the 53 collisions that resulted in fatalities, 35 (66%) occurred during daylight, 50 (94%) occurred during fair weather (i.e., clear or cloudy), and 44 (83%) occurred in rural areas. The number of collisions involving fatalities was similar by day of the week and by month of the year.

Fifty (94%) fatal collisions involved freight trains, and three involved the one passenger train service in the state. These trains had a median of three locomotives (range: one to eight locomotives) and 56 cars (range: one to 127 cars) and were traveling at an average estimated speed of 45 mph (range: 0-90 mph) at the time of the collision.

Of the 53 motor vehicles involved in fatal collisions, 32 (60%) were automobiles; 16 (30%), trucks; two (4%), farm tractors; and three (6%), other types of vehicles. Five motor vehicles were stopped or stalled on the railroad tracks at the time of the collision. For the 48 motor vehicles moving at the time of the collision, the median estimated speed was 25 mph (range: 4-75 mph). In 48 (91%) collisions, the motor vehicle was struck by or struck the lead engine of the train; in the remaining five (9%), the motor vehicle struck the side of the train behind the lead engine. In these five side-impact collisions, three occurred at night, one was an apparent suicide, and one occurred after the vehicle skidded 176 feet in an attempt to stop before reaching the rail crossing.

Thirty-two (60%) drivers were killed in a collision in their county of residence, and six (11%) drivers were killed while working. Of the 28 (53%) drivers who were tested postmortem for BAC, detectable levels (greater than or equal to 0.02 g/dL) were present in 10 (19%), including six (11%) who were legally intoxicated (greater than or equal to 0.10 g/dL). The manner of death was specified on the death certificate for 49 drivers: of these, 47 (96%) were considered unintentional injuries or "accidents," *** and two (4%) were considered suicides.

Thirty-three (62%) drivers did not stop at the highway-rail crossing before the collision; two (4%) drivers stopped and then proceeded before the collision. Five (9%) drivers drove behind or in front of a train and struck or were struck by a second train on a parallel set of tracks, and seven (13%) motorists drove around or through crossing gates.

For the 51 grade crossings at which collisions involving fatalities occurred, 49 (96%) crossings had one fatal collision each, and two (3.9%) crossings had two each. All crossings had some type of warning device. At 37 (73%) crossings, passive warning devices were present, including 32 (63%) at which the crossings were marked only by crossbucks (i.e., black and white X-shaped signs that read "Railroad Crossing"). At 14 (27%) crossings, at least one type of active warning device (e.g., gates or flashing lights) was present. In five (9%) collisions, the view of the railroad track was obstructed at the crossing by standing railroad equipment, a passing train, topography, or vegetation.

Reported by: B George, Federal Railroad Administration. N Mattson, D Vialle, Kansas Dept of Transportation; V Wenger, Kansas Corporation Commission; D Rundle, Kansas Bur of Investigation; K Sommer, Center for Health and Environmental Statistics, G Pezzino, MD, Acting State Epidemiologist, Kansas Dept of Health and Environment. Div of Unintentional Injury Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; Div of Field Epidemiology, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Although the number of motor-vehicle collisions with trains in the United States has decreased substantially since 1976, each year approximately 500 persons die as the result of such collisions (1). The findings from a previous study indicate that many motorists are unaware of, or chose to ignore, the need for caution at highway-rail crossings (2). Two strategies employed to prevent collisions have included educational campaigns (e.g., "Operation Lifesaver") to alert the public to the hazards of highway-rail crossings, and engineering controls (e.g., installation of active warning systems) to improve the safety of crossings (3). The findings from Kansas suggest that vigorous use of both approaches might assist in decreasing the occurrence of fatal collisions at highway-rail crossings. In particular, educational efforts should encourage drivers to approach every highway-rail crossing as if a train were approaching and to take appropriate precautions.

The findings in Kansas also indicate that drivers may fail to heed passive warning systems and that the presence of obstructed views may contribute to some collisions. Of the 8040 public highway-rail crossings in Kansas in 1993, a total of 6502 (81%) had only passive warnings (1). However, even though collisions at crossings with passive warning devices accounted for 70% of fatal crashes, the risk for fatal collisions at crossings in relation to the presence of warning devices cannot be determined without estimates of both train and motor-vehicle traffic volume. Because the probability of a collision is two to 40 times higher at crossings without gates (4,5), unnecessary crossings should be eliminated and remaining crossings should be upgraded. However, upgrading is expensive; installation of active warning devices costs approximately $150,000-$200,000 per crossing in Kansas (Kansas Department of Transportation, unpublished data).

This analysis did not assess data about collisions involving nonfatal injuries; therefore, the findings may not be representative of all collisions involving injuries. Further research is necessary to identify risk factors for fatal and nonfatal collisions.

An action plan to improve highway-rail crossing safety by the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (6) includes six major initiatives (i.e., promoting enforcement of traffic laws, encouraging safety reviews, supporting public education, reviewing private-crossing issues, conducting research and making data available, and fostering trespass prevention) encompassing 55 specific proposals. In addition, this plan has targeted as a goal for the year 2004 reduction nationally of the number of fatalities from motor-vehicle collisions with trains per year by at least 50%.


  1. Federal Railroad Administration. Highway-rail crossing accident/incident and inventory bulletin, no. 16, calendar year 1993. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, 1994.

  2. Wigglesworth EC. The effects of local knowledge and sight restrictions on driver behavior at open railway crossings. J Safety Res 1978;10:100-7.

  3. National Transportation Safety Board. Safety study: passenger/commuter train and motor vehicle collisions at grade crossings (1985). Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 1986; report no. NTSB/SS-86/04.

  4. Meeks KD, Robertson LS. Study of road-rail crashes in Claremore, OK, and allocation of resources for preventive measures. Public Health Rep 1993;108:248-51.

  5. Tenkink E, Van der Horst R. Car driver behavior at flashing light railroad grade crossings. Accid Anal Prev 1990;22:229-39.

  6. Federal Railroad Administration. Rail-highway crossing safety action plan support proposals. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, 1994.

* Classified according to the International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9), as E810. These data were obtained from CDC's Compressed Mortality File (CMF), which contains information from death certificates filed in the 50 states and the District of Columbia that have been prepared in accordance with external cause codes. CDC's Wide-ranging ONline Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) computerized information system was used to obtain CMF data. 

** Defined by the Federal Railroad Administration as a location where one or more railroad tracks intersect a public or private thoroughfare, a sidewalk, or a pathway. 

*** When a death occurs under "accidental" circumstances, the preferred term within the public health community is "unintentional injury."

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