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Informer: Yield sign default for passive rail crossings

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:53 PM

By Andrew Perzo / American Press

Why is there a yield sign at the railroad crossing on Main Street in Lacassine and not a stop sign like other crossings?

Under the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, most crossings like the one on Main — i.e., passive ones, or those without gates or lights — should be equipped with yield signs, not stop signs.

The 2003 edition of the MUTCD allowed for the use of either sign at passive crossings, but Federal Highway Administration officials in 2006 recommended using stop signs only in certain circumstances.

“It is recommended that YIELD signs be considered the default choice for traffic control at a passive crossing unless an engineering study or judgment determines that a STOP sign is appropriate,” reads an agency guidance memo distributed in March of that year.

“A STOP sign establishes a legal requirement for each and every vehicle to come to a full stop. Indiscriminate use of the STOP sign at all or many passive grade crossings can cause poor compliance, increasing the risk of collisions associated with a high non-compliance rate.”

Several studies have shown that stop-sign-equipped crossings are, counterintuitively, much less safe than people assume.

In April 2006, traffic safety researcher Richard Raub published the results of a study he conducted on the effectiveness of four kinds of warning devices — crossbucks, stops signs, gates and lights — at crossings in seven Midwestern states.

After comparing data gathered by the Federal Railroad Administration, Raub concluded that “collisions at highway-rail grade crossings where STOP signs were installed were more likely to occur than with any other form of warning system.”

“One theory from the study of drivers at low-volume intersections is that they come to regard STOP signs to have less meaning than the law intends,” Raub wrote. “The low-volume highway-rail crossings would fall within this theory.”

He noted that the limited work then available on the use of yield signs at intersections suggested they were more effective than stops signs, and he questioned whether stop signs should be used at crossings at all. He called for more research “on driver behavior before further STOP-sign installation takes place.”

The latest edition of the MUTCD, released in 2009, mandates the pairing of either a yield or a stop sign with crossbucks — together called a crossbuck assembly — at all passive rail crossings by 2019.

“The meaning of a Crossbuck Assembly that includes a YIELD sign is that a road user approaching the grade crossing needs to be prepared to decelerate, and when necessary, yield the right-of-way to any rail traffic that might be occupying the crossing or might be approaching and in such close proximity to the crossing that it would be unsafe for the road user to cross. ...,” reads the manual.

“Certain commercial motor vehicles and school buses are required to stop at all grade crossings in accordance with 49 CFR 392.10 even if a YIELD sign (or just a Crossbuck sign) is posted.”

Online: http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov.

• • •

The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email informer@americanpress.com

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