It is a nightmare scenario, a driver makes a right turn but ends up in the wrong place – on railroad tracks. Cars can easily become stuck on the tracks leading to serious injuries and sometimes death.

That is why the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) teamed up with the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida to set the stage for a pilot study that will test countermeasures for reducing the risk of incorrect turns at highway-rail grade crossings in Florida.

CUTR coordinated with the FDOT Central Office and Districts 1, 4, and 7 to develop a deployment and evaluation plan for the pilot implementation project. The plan identified study sites of railroad crossings with potential incorrect turn issues, proposed countermeasures, estimated costs, a data collection plan, and data analysis methodology.

To ensure the effectiveness of the pilot study and to implement the plan, the research team sought to answer four questions:

  1. What are the factors contributing to these incidents?
  2. Which countermeasures will be cost-effective for mitigating them?
  3. Which locations should be included in the pilot study?
  4. How will countermeasure effectiveness be evaluated?

Identifying Contributing Factors

There are many reasons why drivers turn onto railroad tracks.

“Some people get confused because the railroad crossings we’re talking about are very close to an intersection or interstate on-ramp,” said Dr. Pei-Sung Lin, Intelligent Transportation System, Traffic Operations and Safety Program Director at CUTR, and Principal Investigator for the project. “They plan to make a right turn and when they see an opening in the road, they don’t realize it’s a railroad track. They turn too soon because they don’t want to miss a turn.”

To develop a focused list of factors for analysis, the team used an earlier study by the National Center for Transit Research (NCTR) that identified five primary contributors to incorrect turns at highway-rail crossings: misleading signs and pavement markings; darkness and low visibility; inaccurate GPS turn instructions; skewed highway-rail grade crossings (not at a 90 degree angle); and driver distraction.

Choosing the Best Countermeasures

Based on these factors, the CUTR team then conducted a thorough literature review to identify low-cost and effective solutions for addressing the contributing factors. The analysis revealed four.

Elimination of potentially misleading pavement markings and signs  

While this may seem counterintuitive, directional pavement markings, if incorrectly placed, can be detrimental. For instance, according to the NCTR study, “right lane must turn right,” “left lane must turn left,” and “right-turn only” are the most recognized regulatory signs and pavement markings that may confuse drivers near railroad tracks.

“When a driver sees a right-turn arrow on the pavement just before the railroad crossing and then an opening in the road, it can be confusing,” said Catherine Bradley, FDOT Rail Capacity Production Specialist and Project Manager for the effort.

Removing these misleading markings and replacing them with clearer ones can lead drivers across railroad tracks more safely.

Pavement markings with guidance information

The second safety countermeasure involves the use of pavement words, symbols, and arrow markings for the purpose of guiding, warning, or regulating traffic. Pavement markings with guidance information can deter and prevent future incidents at highway-rail grade crossings near interchange ramps or at-grade signalized intersections with exclusive turn lanes.

“Instead of telling drivers to turn right, we should use the straight arrow with shields such as I-95 southbound,” said Lin. “That way people can see they’re approaching railroad tracks but are going to I-95. When they see that, they know they are in the correct lane and the straight arrow prevents them from turning too soon. After the railroad crossing, we can add the right turn arrows.”

This example in Palm Beach County shows how clearer marking and edge lines that cross the tracks could be added to reduce high-rail wrong way driving.

Extension of edge lines at highway-rail grade crossings

Another issue associated with incorrect turns and train-vehicle crashes is that the roadway edge line may end near the stop line for the grade crossing and does not continue across the track area. Extending the edge lines across the tracks helps drivers see that the turn lane is beyond the rail crossing.

“When we see the solid line, we know the road continues and we shouldn’t cross that line,” said Lin.

Raised pavement markers or tubular delineators can also be considered to supplement edge lines.

Qwick Kurb

At some rail crossings there is a potential risk of drivers intentionally making a U-turn using the railroad tracks. “In this case, people are turning on purpose and using the railroad track as a place to turn around,” said Lin. “Qwick Kurb is a traffic channelization device that can deter motorists from turning around before or at railroad crossings.”

Qwick Kurb can be an effective countermeasure to guide drivers across railroad crossing and prevent them from accidentally turning onto the tracks.

Choosing Appropriate Test Locations

After identifying countermeasures to be tested, CUTR developed an inventory of incidents between 2010 and 2014 caused by incorrect turns onto railroad tracks in Florida. The research team coordinated with FDOT using three major data sources: FDOT Crash Analysis Reporting System, Federal Railroad Administration accident/incident database, and news reports. The team also coordinated with FDOT to contact railroad companies to obtain records of events of vehicles stuck on rail tracks that were not available in the FRA and FDOT databases.

“In some locations it occurs more frequently,” said Lin. “It happens about once a month and sometimes twice a month. You don’t hear about it in the newspaper because it’s incidents, not necessarily crashes.”

This information, combined with input from FDOT Districts 1, 4 and 7, helped the CUTR team identify 10 pilot study sites to test the focus countermeasures.

The pilot locations include railroad crossings in Lakeland, Bradenton, Hollywood, Lake Clarke Shores, Pembroke Park, Oakland Park, Tampa, and Oldsmar, Florida.

Measuring Effectiveness

The pilot will include a “before-after” study to evaluate countermeasure performance. Two-stage data will be collected at each candidate site: “before,” with existing pavement markings, and “after,” after implementing the proposed countermeasures. A Wavetronix SmartSensor with video cameras will be installed to collect speed profiles and counts of turning vehicles as drivers approach the at-grade crossing for a total of two days at each site. For each day, data collection will be conducted in the daytime (10:00 AM–2:00 PM) and nighttime (7:00 PM–11:00 PM).

The vehicle speed data and camera video review will help researchers identify hesitation among drivers before the countermeasures are put into place and then afterwards. For the purposes of the study, a driver who experiences potential hesitation is defined as one who has a much lower speed and a significant headway from the previous vehicle.

“It depends if there is a lot of congestion as well,” Lin said. “We will study speed profiles and use the video to see what else may have been happening. If a car is going slow because the car in front of them is going slow, they are not hesitant.”

The researchers hope to reduce the number of hesitant drivers, and ultimately the number who turn onto railroad tracks, with the implementation of the countermeasures.

Setting the Stage for State-Wide Implementation

Based on the findings of the pilot, the team will be in a position to recommend which low-cost countermeasures were effective and have potential for wider implementation across the state. The deployment plan and performance evaluation criteria developed during this study could also become a template for others to use in their area.

“Understanding the effectiveness of these countermeasures and how drivers react to them will help us plan for mitigating these incidents state-wide,” Bradley said. “And that is our long-term goal.”