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Chairs DeFazio, Lipinski Request Update from 12 Companies on Grade Crossing Data | The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

September 19, 2019

Washington, DC – Today, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) sent a letter to 12 companies seeking information on what steps they have taken to incorporate data into their navigation services, applications and devices that can help prevent accidents at highway-railroad at-grade crossings.

Following a 2015 Metrolink train derailment in Oxnard, California the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent letters to 14 companies alerting them to its recommendation that highway-railroad at-grade crossing geographic data be incorporated into their navigation services, applications and devices. Nearly three years later, the NTSB has closed its recommendation for only two of those 14 companies. Today’s letter, sent by Chairs DeFazio and Lipinski, seeks information from the 12 remaining companies about what actions they have taken, or plan to take, to address this important safety issue. The recipients include: Apple; Google; HERE; INRIX; MapQuest; Microsoft; Omnitracs; OpenStreetMap; Sensys Networks; StreetLight Data; Teletrac Navman; and United Parcel Service. Properly implementing the NTSB’s recommendation would have noticeable positive impacts on safety.

“Accidents at highway-railroad at-grade crossings (“grade crossings”) have taken a tremendous human toll throughout the decades and in small and large communities across the country… No amount of data will fully eliminate grade crossing accidents, but simple steps could help avoid numerous crashes and too many injuries,” the Members wrote.

Full text of the letter can be found below and attached.

September 19, 2019

NAME

TITLE

COMPANY

STREET

CITY / ZIP CODE

Dear NAME Company Executive:

 

In February 2015, an Amtrak-operated Metrolink commuter rail train en-route from Oxnard, California to Los Angeles struck a Ford service truck. The truck had mistakenly turned at the highway-railroad at-grade crossing onto Union Pacific Railroad (UP) tracks and became stuck when it was hit. The collision derailed all four coach cars of the train, killed the train’s engineer and injured 32 others. The driver of the truck had been using an application on his cell phone to navigate to his destination. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that had the driver’s navigation application included information on the highway-railroad at-grade crossing, he would have been less likely to misinterpret the visual cues and mistakenly turn onto the tracks.[1]

Accidents at highway-railroad at-grade crossings (“grade crossings”) have taken a tremendous human toll throughout the decades and in small and large communities across the country. In 1998, the NTSB highlighted these dangers and recommended safety improvements to help warn drivers of impending hazards at grade crossings by posting signs and educating drivers.[2] Today, however, with the vast proliferation of mobile devices and easy access to geolocation services, there is an opportunity to forewarn drivers of these dangers before they reach these crossings. As a result of its investigation into the Oxnard accident, the NTSB recommended geolocation service providers incorporate grade crossing-related data into their navigation applications in order to provide drivers with additional safety cues and to reduce the likelihood of grade crossing accidents.[3]

In December 2016, the NTSB wrote to your company urging it to act on the Board’s recommendation. “The NTSB is vitally interested in this recommendation because it is designed to prevent accidents and save lives,” wrote then-NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. “We would appreciate receiving a response from you within 90 days detailing the actions you have taken or intend to take to implement it.”[4]  However, according to the NTSB, only two of the 14 companies they wrote to had taken any action to include railroad crossing data into their geolocation services. Disturbingly, 11 of the companies they wrote to did not even respond to the NTSB’s request for information about this important safety issue.[5]

Many of the software applications and products developed by geolocation companies display information regarding police presence, red light cameras and road-kill information, for instance. Marketing data also routinely pops up on these devices and services that identifies the nearest fast food restaurant or car wash. Yet, according to recent media reports[6], by and large, with few exceptions, the companies that produce these software applications and devices have chosen not to include freely available data made public by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regarding the geolocation of railroad crossings that could serve as a public warning to help improve highway safety and avoid accidents.[7]

No amount of data will fully eliminate grade crossing accidents, but simple steps could help avoid numerous crashes and too many injuries. Since the NTSB wrote those letters in 2016 to your company and others, there have been more than 4,336 collisions at grade crossings resulting in more than 1,663 injuries and at least 541 deaths.[8] We believe modest efforts by your company can help enhance the awareness of drivers as they approach railroad crossings and dramatically improve safety at these dangerous intersections thereby reducing tragic accidents and human casualties.

It is unclear to us if any additional efforts to help improve public safety and reduce the number of train accidents have been undertaken by the vast majority of geolocation service companies. It is possible that since the NTSB requested this data nearly three years ago, some of the companies they wrote to have implemented the NTSB’s recommendation to routinely include railroad crossing data into their services, applications and devices. If so, we would like to know the status of these efforts. This is why we are writing to you now. The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has oversight jurisdiction over railroad and highway safety-related practices, programs, equipment and infrastructure. We believe this is an important public safety issue that can be easily addressed to help save lives. We seek your cooperation and timely written response to the questions listed below.

  • What steps has your company taken since December 2016 to incorporate railroad crossing data into your geolocation service products, devices, services or applications?
  • What future steps does your company intend to take to incorporate railroad crossing data into your geolocation service products or applications?
  • If there are key technical or other hurdles to incorporating this safety critical data into your geolocation service products, applications or services, please explain what those hurdles are and what efforts your company has taken to help resolve them.

Please respond to this letter by October 2, 2019. If you have any questions, you or your staff may contact Andrea Wohleber on the Majority staff of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials at (202) 225-3274.

We appreciate your attention to this important safety issue.

                                                                        Sincerely,

PETER A. DeFAZIO                                                 DANIEL LIPINSKI

Chairman                                                                     Chairman

                                                                                                            Subcommittee on Railroads,

                                                                                                            Pipelines and Hazardous Materials

cc:        The Honorable Sam Graves, Ranking Member

            Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure

            The Honorable Rick Crawford, Ranking Member

            Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials

–30–



[1] “Highway Accident Brief: Train and Truck Crash on Railroad Right-of-Way and Subsequent Fire,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), November 15, 2016, accessed here: https://ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/HAB1607.pdf.

[3] “Safety Recommendation H-16-015,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), accessed here: https://ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/_layouts/ntsb.recsearch/Recommendation.aspx?Rec=H-16-015.

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