Rail transport
Rail trans­port

Safety at level cros­sings

Accidents at level crossings are relatively rare but disproportionately serious. The causes of those accidents and the factors influencing them have scarcely been researched at all up to now in Germany.

The UDV (German Insurers Accident Research) therefore commissioned a scientific study in order to answer the following questions: What factors affect the accident risk at level crossings, and to what extent? What measures can be taken to reduce this risk? Can a model be created in order to assess and compare the safety of level crossings?

A total of 2,566 level crossings in three German federal states were examined. 226 accidents involving injuries and damage to property occurred at these level crossings in the period from 2005 to 2011. The effect of infrastructural, operational and traffic-related parameters on accidents was studied. The most common type of protection was half barriers with traffic light signals (at 35 percent of them). 22 percent of the level crossings had no technical protection equipment. Most accidents (78 percent) occurred at level crossings with technical protection equipment: five at level crossings with full barriers, 107 at level crossings with half barriers and 65 where there were flashing lights or traffic light signals. 62 percent of all the accidents recorded involved injuries. At least one person was killed or seriously injured at one in two of these accidents. 69 percent of the accidents were caused by road users ignoring or circumventing technical protection equipment, and 21 percent of them were the result of a failure to observe the priority of trains at level crossings without technical protection equipment. Around 54 percent of the accidents involving injuries and damage to property were recorded on main lines.

1,040 level crossings were used to create a quantitative model for the calculation of accidents at level crossings. Predicting accidents at level crossings is not realistic for practical purposes, because the numbers of accidents were so low that any prediction may turn out to be a substantial overestimate or underestimate. It makes more sense to assess the risk at a single level crossing based on a points-rating system for parameters that can affect the numbers of accidents that occur. Such an individual safety rating can be combined to obtain a measure of the accident risk for non-motorized and motorized road users. Since a full barrier largely eliminates both unintentional and intentional inappropriate actions, this type of protection forms the basis for the developed three-step safety rating system: Low-risk level crossing (no immediate need for action), medium-risk level crossing (local check as to whether there is a need for action) and high-risk level crossing (there is a need for action).

108 claim files kept by insurers were examined in order to carry out a detailed analysis of the circumstances of accidents at level crossings. Around half of these accidents occurred at technically protected level crossings with half barriers or with flashing lights/traffic light signals only. In most of the accidents, a car without a trailer collided with a train. The relatively high number of trucks with trailers involved is particularly striking. The key causes of the accidents can be subdivided into the following categories: willfulness, problems clearing the level crossing, carelessness or a lack of visibility or recognizability.

The most effective way to prevent accidents at level crossings is to remove them and replace them with underpasses or overpasses. However, the installation of full barriers can also be an effective contribution to road safety. At level crossings with half barriers or only traffic light signals, the accident risk is significantly higher, generally as a result of the inappropriate actions of road users. In other countries, the structural demarcation of the lanes by means of traffic islands or road dividers and the installation of red-light monitoring systems have reduced infringements by drivers. Level crossings without technical protection equipment and with a significant number of accidents should be protected by means of traffic light signals, as a minimum, and possibly also be equipped with a red-light monitoring system. In addition, suitable campaigns to make road users sensitive to the risk at level crossings can also make a contribution.

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