Should the railroads train their employees what to do in the event of a grade crossing collision?
Consider the following scenario: An engineer sees a log truck approaching the crossing ahead. He assumes the truck will stop before it actually gets on the crossing; however, he and the other crewmembers suddenly realize that the truck will not stop and there is going to be a collision regardless of any action on their parts. Nevertheless, the engineer shoots the brakes and dives to the floor. At the same time, the conductor and brakeman are diving to the floor as well. Almost instantly, the locomotive hits the truck, loaded with logs, squarely in the middle of the trailer. Luckily, no logs fly through the window of the locomotive. However, both the engineer and conductor are injured when they impact portions of the locomotive compartment in their effort to get to the floor. One sustains a torn rotator cuff because his shoulder slammed against the console as he was diving to the floor. The other crew member ruptured a disk when he hit the floor.
This scenario takes place all too often in crossing collisions. Why are railroaders being injured in crossing collisions when they are trying to avoid injury? Can these employees be trained by the railroad to react appropriately so that no injury results in most cases? Despite the fact that there are over 800 crossing collisions in this country every year, and the fact that crossing collisions, in one form or another, have been occurring ever since the dawn of railroading, the major railroads have never studied what the crewmembers should do in the event of an impending crossing collision.
Perhaps there is no way to predict what train crews should do in such situations. However, without any studies to determine if there is a procedure that would result in a better chance of escaping without injury in most cases, it is impossible to say that one approach is not superior to another. Had the railroad studied the issue, they could rely on the results of the studies being non-conclusive, if in fact, they were, as a defense to claims that the railroad failed to adequately train. Without even studying the issue, however, there is a presumption that had the issue been studied, the studies would suggest that the railroad could provide a safer work place for its employee. More than likely, there will be some type of conduct the employee could perform that in the high percentage of cases would result in less or no injury in the event of a crossing collision. The railroad knows that almost 100% of its road crews will be involved in a crossing collision at some point in their careers, and many will be in multiple collisions. Thus, the data is already there from which to extrapolate the best position of safety based on the types of collisions that have occurred historically.
If there is a preferred position of safety for the employee to take, all transportation employees should be trained on how to get to the appropriate position in a controlled manner. Because time is of the essence in these situations, the employees must be trained so that the conduct becomes automatic. For example, we all know what to do in the event of a fire or an airline emergency. Our conduct in those situations is automatic because we have heard the drill many times. Getting the crew to a position of safety in a controlled manner would eliminate injuries of crewmembers who are now being injured in a non-controlled effort to avoid injury.
Not only would appropriate training likely help the crew to avoid physical injury, it would also serve to decrease the number of incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Without training, an employee faced with an inevitable collision is placed in a position that is tailor made for post-traumatic stress. The classic criteria for the onset of PTSD include the following: 1) Persistently re-experiencing a horrifying event; 2) the horrifying event would have been distressing to almost anyone; and 3) Reaction to the event persisted for at least one month.
Railroaders involved in crossing collisions typically experience a fear for their own safety as well as those individuals in the vehicles struck by the train. They routinely have to look at dead and maimed bodies. The repeated exposure to such events over the course of a railroad person’s career can certainly lead to mental distress. The crewmember may experience recurrent dreams of the event, intense psychological distress at exposure to reminders of the event, disassociative behavior, amnesia of the event, irritability, physiological distress at exposure to reminders of the event and difficulty concentrating. (This list is not exhaustive, but only a guide).
The issue then becomes, would proper training to prepare for the inevitability of crossing collisions, as well as appropriate triage after the event help reduce PTSD? There has been no definite answer but it seems logical that it would. One of the major reasons a person experiences PTSD is because, at the time of the event, the person experiences a feeling of total loss of control. There is nothing the employee can do to prevent the disaster. Proper training would give the crewmenber a checklist of things to do in the event of an impending collision. Knowing what to do gives the person a sense of control – that sense of control in turn alleviates the fearfulness that forms the basis of PTSD.
Additionally, the railroad should consider a more compassionate approach to assessing its employees’ condition following these events. After the collision, when someone may have been killed or horribly injured, instead of telling the crew to get back on the train and move it down the tracks, they should be taken off duty and debriefed. At least one carrier is now doing this through the implementation of critical incident support teams. In most cases, there will be no residual psychological affects of having been involved in a grade crossing collision. However, appropriate triage will identify those individuals who are likely to react adversely, either immediately or within a short time of the event, and in many cases will eliminate the problem all together.
For a cause of action to exist under the Federal Employers' Liability Act the railroad’s actions must have been unreasonable. In these training cases, the question is therefore, “Would a reasonable railroad at least study what is the best position of safety for its employees to take in a crossing collision?” The obvious answer is “yes.” The railroads have spent millions of dollars studying how to protect its equipment; why not the same emphasis on the safety of its train crews?
Additionally, any reasonable employer would and should provide proper training and triage for their crewmembers. Airlines do it, the shipping industry does it, and the railroads should do it. Perhaps Plaintiffs will get the railroads’ attention through the Federal Employers' Liability Act. Whenever a crewmember is injured in a crossing collision while trying to avoid injury, the Plaintiff’s attorney should aggressively pursue the training issue --not only to fully represent the client, but also to promote change within the industry for the better.