I’ve been using Google Street View to conduct my own “investigation” into this accident in Nevada, in which a tractor-trailer plowed through railroad-crossing gates and collided with the side of a moving Amtrak train, killing six people. Here’s what I’ve found:
- The road leading up to this crossing, U.S. Route 75, is a dead straight, two-lane road through flat desert. As you approach this crossing, the posted speed limit is 70 miles per hour (see top pic from Google Street View above).
- Other than lights and a gate at the crossing itself (bottom pic), the only warning to approaching drivers is an “RR” symbol painted on the road about 1,000 yards from the crossing (middle pic).[Update: I’ve learned that this painted symbol is 650 feet away, and that the first warning is actually a small “RR” sign 900 feet away — I’ve updated the photo above accordingly.]
- As you travel the opposite direction on this road, the speed limit drops down to 55, and then 45 mph as you approach the junction with Interstate 80, about two miles north of the railroad crossing. But traveling south, the speed limit remains a 70 mph right up to the crossing.
I’ve read several news accounts about this accident and I’m surprised that none of them mentions the 70 mph speed limit. Also, in all of these stories, the law enforcement and investigation people interviewed keep professing puzzlement over what caused the accident, calling it a “mystery” that the driver (who died) didn’t stop in time.
According to some data I’ve found, it takes a truck traveling 70 mph 485 feet to come to a complete stop — the length of over one-and-a-half football fields. So they set the speed limit on this straight, sleep-inducing, two-lane road at 70 mph leading up to this crossing, and then expect every truck driver to notice and start braking over 1.5 football fields away to avoid plowing into the train? And then they act surprised and mystified when a truck starts braking only one football field away (according to the skid marks, as cited in this report) and collides with the train?
I’m no expert, but I’d guess they might want to reduce the speed limit approaching this crossing, and maybe put up a warning sign or two. The investigation into this accident is expected to last over a year, so maybe sometime in 2012 they’ll get around to doing that.
Update: I’ve finally found a news story reference that confirms my own finding that the speed limit leading up to that crossing was 70 mph:
While the cause of the crash is still being investigated, Trooper Chuck Allen said visibility wasn’t an issue though it’s unclear if the truck driving above the 70 miles per hour speed limit for that stretch of Interstate 95.
Interestingly, the speed limit is mentioned only in reference to whether the driver may have been speeding — not whether a speed limit of 70 mph through a railroad crossing might be, you know, kind insane in the first place.
I’ve also found this reference confirming what warning signage existed, at what distance away:
The first warning sign was almost 900 feet before what Mr. Weener described as a state-of-the-art rail crossing gate. There were additional markers at 650 feet.
OK, let’s do some math: A truck traveling 70 miles per hour (the speed limit here) moves at a rate of about 100 feet per second, and takes almost 500 feet to brake to a halt. That means, after passing a warning sign 900 feet from the crossing, the truck driver has just over four seconds to hit the brakes to avoid a collision.