Your smartphone’s maps app may soon talk to you about the location of railroad crossings.
Audio and visual alerts are coming to mobile users as a result of a new partnership between Google and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Finding ways to lower the death rate at 225,000 public and private rail crossings has become a bigger priority since Sarah Feinberg became the FRA’s administrator in October 2015.
“Few issues have been as important to me as improving safety at railroad crossings,” she said recently in a statement.
While railroad safety is improving overall, fatalities spiked in 2014, the year before Feinberg took office. There were 267 deaths that year, up from 232 the year prior.
Staffers at the agency haven’t pinpointed exactly why deaths spiked that year. Their suspicions include the fact that there are more cars on the road and more trains on the tracks, said Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for the administration.
In some cases, existing technology could be failing us.
The administration requires states to make monthly inspections of nearly 5,000 locations that have rail crossings interconnected with traffic signals.
When properly programmed, those signals can help prevent vehicles and trains from being on the tracks at the same time. If timing is off, anything can happen.
Feinberg is asking states to have other traffic experts periodically join them for inspections. Together they can verify that vehicles have enough time to clear the crossing before a train enters.
N.C. Department of Transportation’s inspections are a collaboration between its signal technicians and the railroad’s crossing signal maintainer.
Still, N.C. DOT is auditing the state’s 14 highway divisions to learn more about participation in the inspection processes, in light of the request from the FRA.
The state maintains 25 highway crossings that include technology for clearing a crossing as a train approaches in Division 10, which includes Anson, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Stanly and Union counties.
Charlotte Department of Transportation maintains 22 intersections that have preemptive signals, according to Charles Abel, transportation systems manager. The city has checked the operation of those signals annually for 15 years.
The city plans to work with N.C. DOT to begin an annual joint inspection in response to the federal agency’s request, Abel said.
Of course, improving safety at rail crossings also means drivers must obey the rules. That includes stopping when the red lights are flashing and crossing arms are coming down.
An alert from a smartphone will be one more reminder of the places where trains and cars should avoid meeting.
Karen Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org, @Sullivan_kms