Why do cars stall so often on railroad tracks?

June 20, 2008

Dear Cecil:

I often see reports of cars stalling on railroad tracks and then getting hit by trains as a result. What makes a car so prone to stall in the middle of train tracks? I've driven over tracks plenty of times and never had a problem.

Cecil replies:

Permit me to suggest, Mario, that it only seems as though cars have a tendency to conk out while crossing train tracks and subsequently get obliterated. For fairly obvious reasons — having largely to do with life being too short — no one's counting how often vehicles stall in places that aren't railroad crossings. Similarly, episodes in which stalled cars are safely removed from the tracks well before a train appears don't typically make the six o'clock news.

Thus the only stalling incidents we're likely to hear about are the car-meets-locomotive kind: stuck on tracks, hit by train, we'll call them, or STHTs. Knowing that the Federal Railroad Administration keeps a tally of these, I dispatched my assistant Una to dig through its database to see what 5,600 recent railroad-crossing accident reports might divulge. As common sense would predict, STHTs seem to consist of variations on a few basic themes:

  • Vehicle stalls while crossing tracks; driver can't restart it due to mechanical problems. Such malfunction, it should be said, was noted in only 6 of the 320 reported STHTs. We'll never know how many such incidents really take place, though, as (a) it's often tough to evaluate the reliability of a car after it's been hit by a train and (b) assuming the driver's in any condition to talk following impact, he may insist that the car simply died rather than concede that what really happened was scenario two, namely
  • Vehicle stalls while crossing tracks; driver can't restart it due to panic experienced upon contemplating sudden arrival of train. In this case, the somewhat fluky quality of a midtrack stall is offset by the all-too-understandable phenomenon of driver freak-out. The ability to do one's best work under pressure is a gift bestowed upon only a rare few, of course, and the rest of you are hardly to be blamed for coming somewhat unglued when the stakes are high.
  • Vehicle gets hung up on the tracks. Here we encounter a reporting problem. The FRA database tells us that about a quarter of all stalls result from being hung up — i.e., from the undercarriage or some other part of the vehicle getting stuck on the rails, preventing further movement. But why would this necessarily lead to a stall? It soon becomes apparent that the accident reports use "stalled" as a rather loose description of any car that winds up on the tracks and is unable to be moved.

It's likely, too, that some incidents reported as stalls are actually suicide attempts. While the FRA doesn't keep tabs on this phenomenon specifically, it did put out a report this March on fatalities among trespassers on railroad rights-of-way, in which it concluded that more than one in five such deaths were probably suicides.

The tireless Una also looked at how often the word "stalled" figured in another 23,000 or so FRA crossing-accident reports from 1975, 1985, 1995, and 2005, hoping to spot any long-term STHT trends. Sure enough, the graph shows a pronounced downward slope: STHTs accounted for 15.8 percent of crossing accidents in '75 but only 5.7 percent in '05. Why? Drivers certainly don't seem to have gotten much smarter in the last 30-odd years (federal transit experts found that 93 percent of crossing accidents in 2003 were due to drivers' bad judgment), so I'm guessing it's because cars have gotten a lot less likely to stall, in main part due to fuel injection replacing carburetion starting in the 80s. Better crossing gates (i.e., ones that are harder to drive around) and the ongoing shift from manual to automatic transmissions may also have played a role

Other gleanings from the FRA files

  • Males were nearly three times as likely as females to be behind the wheel in an STHT. One could easily whip up a few theories to explain the disparity: men are bigger risk takers and thus more likely to try and beat a train to the crossing, men are more willing to be seen in the old and/or beat-to-hell cars that are in greater danger of stalling, etc. The biggest factor, though, is probably a lot simpler: though men and women drive in roughly equal numbers, men drive a lot more miles
  • The average age of drivers involved in STHTs was 38 years, which also happened to be the average age for the railroad trespassing fatalities mentioned above. Memo to all you 38-year-olds out there: you might consider sticking to just one side of the tracks if you can possibly help it.
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