Trucking industry expert shares tips to keep drivers alive at level crossings

For this week’s post, we talked to Ray Gompf, vice-president of Canadian Owner Operators' Co-operative and a former long haul trucker. Ray is a volunteer for Operation Lifesaver and he has been involved in the trucking industry in one form or another for decades. He’s also a freelance writer for the trucking and automotive industry and writes a regular column for Desi Trucking Magazine and blogs for Big Truck TV about trucking issues, including safety. 

We asked Ray for his thoughts on the importance of rail safety for truck drivers and had him share some tips that will help truck drivers (and all drivers) stay alive at level crossings.

In your career, have you witnessed or known any truck drivers involved in a train vs. truck collision?

I've worked in the trucking industry since 1958 with a 12-year stint in the army from 1961 to 73, and even then I was in transportation. Having been in the trucking industry this long and with an average 40 truck/train collisions annually, yes, I have both seen and known truckers -- and others -- involved in collisions with trains.   

The first was when I was in high school in about 1957, involving a classmate of mine. He was riding with his dad and younger brother in their pick-up truck and they were struck by a train in their own farm driveway, near Cayuga, Ontario. That's a horror I'll never forget. The sight of three caskets at the front of the church is something no one needs to see.

Why is rail safety an important issue for truck drivers?

While my interest is truck drivers, everyone needs to take rail safety seriously. It's not just an important issue, it's vitally critical. The simple fact is that vehicle/train collisions almost always involve death. It's most often the death of the vehicle driver and his or her passengers that is the reality. Every collision with a train is preventable, so why are there so many? The answer is just plain lapses in paying attention to the job of driving. People need to understand that just because they may be late and in a hurry, sanity shouldn't be thrown out the window. Impatience is a disaster waiting to happen.

Here's a story that illustrates this point. One day I was in Windsor and had stopped at a railway crossing because the barriers had come down. There was a line of traffic building behind me waiting for the train to cross. A car from about 15 cars back, drove up, passed all the cars and my truck waiting for the train to clear, and drove between the barriers. The driver made it through, but the train was less than a paint thickness away from contacting the car. Even though the car "got away with it", it still was a very unsettling thing to watch.

What tips do you have for truck drivers (and drivers in general) for staying safe, and alive, when they encounter a level crossing?

It is my belief that most incidents (there are no accidents, just incidents and wrecks) happen in areas where people are most familiar, usually very close to their home. It's the old story of familiarity breeding contempt. People, not just truckers, should never let their familiarity with any particular location (level crossing) override their best judgment when they approach.   

There are speed limit laws for crossing railway tracks and drivers need to obey them – every time. Everyone should drive like the trucker hauling gasoline. Slow down approaching the level crossing and stop (if necessary) to ensure your line of vision is absolutely clear both ways on the tracks and proceed only when it is safe to do so. Be like that five-year-old child looking 10 times each way when crossing the street because mommy and daddy are watching. When crossing railway tracks, be as safe as that five-year-old child. 

For truck drivers, be aware that a level crossing is coming up and slow down. Be aware if the crossing has a hump over which they might become "hung up". If they do have a problem with the crossing, run to the switch box and call the telephone number listed thereon with the location to warn any trains coming on the track. Stay out of the vehicle and move to a safe location as far away as possible and not on the railway property.  

People need to concentrate on the job at hand, which is driving, and leave any and all other forms of multitasking alone until their vehicle is stopped and learn patience.

Why do you think the Operation Lifesaver program is important?

When I was a child there was a public service announcement teaching kids to "stop, look and listen". I have never forgotten this over the past 60 years. It's something that we must ingrain in our children today. We must ingrain in our children that railway tracks are dangerous places and that walking on the tracks is not just dangerous, but is in fact trespassing and illegal.  

In this era of multitasking (driving distracted) where people are too busy to do even one task properly like drive, where they are too busy to remember common sense rules, we need to have programs like Operation Lifesaver to be prominent in our minds. We need to have the message ingrained in our psyche, as the old "stop, look and listen" message was ingrained in mine as a child. The Operation Lifesaver message isn't one that is told once, it must be reinforced daily for the life of every person. As long as we have railway tracks and people who fail to act safely around them, then unfortunately, there will be incidents. Programs like Operation Lifesaver do have a mitigating effect on the numbers of incidents and wrecks.