The Incident – Why Buses Open Their Door at Railroads

April 8, 2011 at 2:00 am 13 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

Although it was required by law for school bus drivers to stop at railway crossings in 1938, drivers were not required to open their door.

On December 1st of that year a gruesome accident changed that. It was a blizzard in Salt Lake City, Utah and a school bus driver stopped his bus at a railway crossing. Because of the snow, the visibility was terrible and the driver was not able to see an approaching freight train.

24 of the 40 passengers died, including the driver. According to surviving passengers, the train was broadsided without notice. Although the driver was familiar with the train schedule, the weather had delayed the train which should have passed two hours earlier. To make matters worse, the train was travelling faster than normal to make up for lost time.

Unfortunately, the same crossing saw accidents in 1995, 1997 and 2002. Thankfully, it is now closed.

The snow ultimately led to the horrific crash in 1938, but investigators wanted to know if any precautions could have prevented it. Stopping the bus and looking for trains works great when the visibility is good, but it’s useless in snow and fog. Opening the bus door (and driver’s window), allows the driver to hear trains.

Today, opening the door and/or driver side window is law in many parts of the United States and Canada. The same law is also extended to trucks that carry hazardous materials.

Some crossings do not require these vehicles to stop and they are marked with an “Exempt” sign. This is typical if the crossing is no longer active.

Railroad crossing signals do fail and there are thousands of collisions each year between trains and cars, many of which end in fatalities. Although the signals are fairly reliable, it doesn’t hurt to pay close attention when you approach railway crossings.

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Sources: The Pittsburgh Press, NSC.org, Deseret News

Photo: You Need Style (cc)

Entry filed under: History and Origins. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Antoine  |  April 8, 2011 at 2:12 am

    I’m foreign and I don’t quite understand this. If the bus stops ON the railway tracks, isn’t it more dangerous? the bus will be a sitting duck for an oncoming train. no?
    Wouldn’t it be safer for the bus to stop and open doors to check if there are any trains coming BEFORE actually crossing?

    Please help me understand.

    Reply
    • 2. Chad Upton  |  April 8, 2011 at 7:02 am

      Yes, that’s what they do. The front of the bus must stop between 15 and 50 feet before the crossing. Maybe the photo threw you off since the bus is in the process of crossing the tracks.

      Reply
    • 3. Victoria  |  April 8, 2011 at 7:33 am

      I don’t get it either. They should clear the crossing before stopping, or wait until they can cross. If it’s too snowy to see the crossing, how will they know they’re on it (and open the door)? Doesn’t really make sense to me.

      Reply
      • 4. Deanna J. Dragonus  |  December 2, 2013 at 4:43 am

        all rail crossings in the US are clearly marked with a sign 50 to 100 feet prior to the track edge and are large enough to be seen from a minimum distance of 1/4 mile. The Department of transportation in each state is charged with maintaining the visibility maintenance of these signs.

  • 5. Michiel  |  April 8, 2011 at 3:12 am

    How about placing signals at a crossing? Or a gate? Or a simple bell that start ringing when a train is approaching?

    All things that have been done before. I really don’t understand why there have to be any unsafe crossings in the world we live in today, especially first world countries (which I believe the USA and Canada are a part of).

    Reply
    • 6. Chad Upton  |  April 8, 2011 at 7:04 am

      Yes, most crossings have lights and a bell, if not a gate. In many cases, these have battery backup systems and fail-safe designs. The law still stands.

      Reply
    • 7. chriscp  |  September 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      Last paragraph:
      Railroad crossing signals do fail and there are thousands of collisions each year between trains and cars, many of which end in fatalities. Although the signals are fairly reliable, it doesn’t hurt to pay close attention when you approach railway crossings.

      Reply
  • 8. Cole  |  April 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Where is this a law?! I’ve never heard of it.

    Reply
    • 9. Deanna J. Dragonus  |  December 2, 2013 at 4:48 am

      its in the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Regulations section 392 sub part B 392.10

      Reply
  • 10. P.  |  April 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    When my theater director took us to the All-State Theater Convention this January, he had to learn how to drive a short bus so as to save costs for the trip (rather than hiring an actual bus driver). He made a huge deal out of stopping at all the railroad crossings and opening the door; this became a big inside joke on the trip. Cool to know that it actually serves an important purpose! Thanks!

    Reply
  • […] school buses were already required by law to stop at railroad crossings, but not open the doors. A horrific accident later that year, however, quickly changed the […]

    Reply
  • 12. Buses at Railroad Crossings | Green Cars of the World  |  October 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    […] were required to stop at railway crossings, but the law did not mandate opening the doors.  On December 1st in Salt Lake City, Utah, there was a sudden and powerful snow storm.  Visibility was dangerously low as a school bus […]

    Reply
  • 13. School Bus Safety  |  October 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    […] stop and we want to make sure that people know why the stops are happening. The sad truth is that horrific accident on December 1, 1938 was the beginning of this safety […]

    Reply

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