Why Do School Buses Open Their Doors at Railway Crossings?
The bus driver is required to stop at the railroad grade crossing, open the door to the bus, listen for any train noise, and look both ways before proceeding. This is to avoid the possibility of being struck by a train. 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. The horrific crash in 1938 prompted the enforcement of this law which requires stopping the bus and looking for trains which works great when the visibility is good, but it’s useless in snow and fog. That is what led to the idea of opening the bus door (and driver’s window), so trains could be heard in poor weather.
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 buses or hazardous material 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 This is typical if the crossing is no longer active.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.
Modern school buses are some of the safest vehicles on the road, but even these sturdy conveyances can be at risk in a collision with a train. Coordination between two N.C. state agencies helps give more information to school bus drivers across the state to help prevent this kind of accident. Nearly 13,000 public school buses operate in N.C. counties that have railroad tracks, and more than 50 percent of these buses cross a railroad track at least once a day.
For buses that cross railroads, the average number of crossings is nearly six a day. In dense urban districts with lots of tracks, the average number of daily crossings for buses can exceed a dozen. Adding all those crossings statewide totals nearly 45,000 times each school day, and those buses carry more than 600,000 students, with an average of 14 students on each bus at the time of crossing.
Because state law requires school buses to come to a complete stop at a railroad crossing, rail crossings play an important role in the computerized school bus routing that is supported by the TIMS project office at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. TIMS – the Transportation Information and Management System – is used statewide and is managed for western N.C. districts from UNC Charlotte.
The institute’s TIMS office provides services to 55 of the state’s 115 school systems and helps them draw up school bus routes that are cost and time efficient. The TIMS information includes the digitized street network, student locations and daily bus paths, as well as the location of each railroad track and crossing in each county. TIMS data managers in the counties as well as support staff from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (which manages eastern N.C. TIMS support) have gone to great lengths to document nearly 4,000 N.C. railroad crossings.
In addition to the tallies and counts for all crossings, TIMS allows an examination of information for specific railroad crossings. TIMS can indicate how many times a day a school bus goes over a specific rail crossing and how many students are on board at the time of each crossing.