Driver panic, confusion common in path of oncoming train

Lack of awareness has led all too many times to hesitation

A police officer looks at an SUV that was crushed at the front of a Metro-North Railroad train Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. Five train passengers and the SUV’s driver were killed in Tuesday evening’s crash, about 20 miles north of New York City. Authorities said the impact was so forceful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK (AP) — Your car is trapped between the crossing gates, and a train is speeding down the tracks, its horn blaring, its lights blazing in your direction.

What do you do?

Hit the gas pedal and crash through the gate, or ditch your car and start running, experts say. And don’t waste any time deliberating over it.

The fiery collision between a train and an SUV that killed six people in suburban New York this week has no doubt left drivers contemplating such a chilling question — one that many of them may not know how to answer.

Experts say that lack of awareness has led all too many times to hesitation, panic and death.

“Bash through the gates,” said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York. “They’re like breakaway gates. They’re usually wood or some sort of heavy foam material, and they’ll easily snap away.”

If the car is stalled or you can’t move it for any reason, abandon the vehicle and run, experts say. Many people make the fatal error of worrying about wrecking their car or trying to retrieve important items before escaping, Sinclair said.

And move away from the tracks, in the direction from which the train is coming, said Libby Rector Snipe of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit group that educates the public about safety at rail crossings.

“It may seem counterintuitive to run toward the train,” she said. “But if you run in the same direction as the train, you could be hit by flying debris.”

In the crash this week in Valhalla, New York, Ellen Brody, 49, was driving home Tuesday night when, according to a driver behind her, the crossing gates descended around her Mercedes SUV and one of them came down on her vehicle.

She got out to check on her vehicle, then got back in and, with no apparent urgency, pulled forward on the tracks just before she was struck by the train, according to the witness. Brody and five train passengers were killed.

Exactly what was going through her mind is unclear. Investigators are still trying to figure out how she ended up on the tracks and why she didn’t exit quickly.

The crash happened in the dark, in traffic backed up because of a nearby accident. Investigators said there were no immediate indications the crossing gates weren’t working properly.

Every year, 230 to 250 people die in collisions at highway-grade rail crossings in the U.S., according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Sometimes the cause is driver confusion: A 2012 study for the Florida Department of Transportation said that signs and traffic signals sometimes confused drivers so much that they turned onto railroad tracks instead of roads.

In other cases, the problem can be mechanical. A 2005 report for the Texas Department of Transportation noted there can be lags in synching up track signals and traffic lights, so sometimes crossing gates come down around drivers. Then the human element kicks in: “panic, confusion or other unsafe actions.”

And sometimes the problem is foolish driver behavior — ignoring the warning lights and bells and trying to drive around crossing gates, for example.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said safe driving at rail crossings needs to be addressed through public education campaigns similar to the ones waged against drunken driving.

“Drivers need to know that these lights and bells and crossing grade rails are not a drill. They’re the real thing,” Blumenthal said. “And that trying to get around them or beat them can cause death, tragedy, not only for themselves but for innocent victims on the train.”

Drivers have died in railroad crossing crashes just in the last month in Macungie, Pennsylvania; Holgate, Ohio; and Kelso, Washington, among other places.

Just a day after the tragedy in Valhalla, a commuter train hit an 18-wheeler stuck in the snow at a crossing in Braintree, Massachusetts. The truck driver jumped out of the cab seconds before impact, and a few train passengers suffered minor injuries.

In December, an 80-year-old woman was killed by an Amtrak train after her minivan became boxed in by the crossing gates in Mebane, North Carolina. Witnesses said they called to her to get out of the car, but she froze up and didn’t even try.

Ultimately, the goal is to avoid getting stuck on the tracks to begin with, Sinclair said. Assume whenever approaching railroad tracks with flashing lights that a train could be on the way. Stop well before the gates and wait.

“Turn off your radio, roll down your windows. At this point, you’re listening,” he said. “You’re listening to see if you hear that train whistle.”

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Associated Press reporters David B. Caruso in New York and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.

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