Safety Rulemaking, Circa 2011

Federal agencies do as Congress or the president commands. Hence a rule proposed Jan. 28 by two DOT units, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, that would bar CMV drivers from entering a highway-rail grade crossing unless there is room to drive completely through without stopping. I'm all for reducing grade-crossing accidents, but this rule is a complete waste of time.

The congressional mandate dates to August 1994: Section 112 of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Authorization Act of 1994 told the two agencies to enact such a prohibition. Four years later, they tried.

And in April 2006 they gave up, saying their proposal "has created a great deal of misunderstanding and should be terminated." State agencies protested that the rule would force them to "reconstruct, rewire, reroute or otherwise correct every inadequate crossing" and said the time, difficulty, and cost involved in collecting reliable data on highway-railroad grade crossings was too much.

FMCSA answered that section 112 applies only to drivers, not to states. But it pulled that rulemaking and promised to "open a new one less burdened by previous misunderstandings."

Let's hope so. Every state has a law addressing vehicle operation at grade crossings, according to the agencies' Jan. 28 NPRM. But 26 states' laws don't explicitly say a driver should not start across an empty grade crossing with no train in sight if stopping at a traffic sign or signal on the other side would leave the rear end of his/her vehicle on the tracks, so they're setting out to enact one.

They admit it could force commercial drivers not to use some crossings at all.

Don't they already avoid crossings where there's too little room between the tracks and the next traffic signal? Don't they already know full well not to enter a crossing if doing so leaves part of their vehicle on the tracks?

The Grain Valley, Mo.-based Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, Inc., representing about 160,000 members, filed the only comments ahead of FMCSA's 2006 meeting. OOIDA noted some jurisdictions were programming traffic light cycles so short that commercial vehicles were often prevented from crossing, "especially when impatient automobile drivers rush to occupy any open space ahead of a CMV. This sometimes results in automobile drivers becoming trapped on the tracks when the crossing alarm sounds," FMCSA summarized. OOIDA suggested creating signs "to inform automobile drivers of the risks involved in such me-first tactics." FMCSA did not promise Jan. 28 to do that but said it will encourage Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program lead agencies to distribute grade crossing safety materials to states' driver licensing authorities and suggest adding it to states' driver training manuals if they don't already cover the subject.

I don't know how well motorists in your area obey the laws, but I'm not confident this will accomplish anything.

If you want to comment about the new proposed rule, visit and find docket numbers PHMSA-2010-0319 (HM-255) and FMCSA-2006-25660 by March 29.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Jan 28, 2011

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