Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Drivers 'should have mandatory level crossing tests'

Drivers and pedestrians risking their lives at level crossings

The driving test should have compulsory questions on level crossings to cut the number of drivers who take risks on them each year, Network Rail has said.

It said there were 14 crashes and 13 deaths last year and 140 near misses between vehicles and trains.

The rail operator recorded 3,200 incidents of misuse, but said the actual figure was likely to be higher.

Network Rail said motorists were "too often playing Russian roulette with a 200-tonne train" - and losing.

Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher said test questions would help drivers start out with good habits on negotiating level crossings, rather than running red lights or dodging around barriers.

'Single biggest risk'

"I'm confident that lives will be saved if motorists learn how to safely use level crossings from the day they pass their test," he said.

Andrew Howard, AA head of road safety, said a train hitting a vehicle on a level crossing was "the single biggest risk of a catastrophic incident on the railway".

He added: "Level crossings are one of the few places where one motorist's irresponsibility can affect the safety of many, many people.

Always obey flashing red stop lights
Stop behind the white line across the road
Keep going if you have already crossed the white line when the amber light comes on
Wait if a train goes by and the red lights continue to flash - another train will be passing soon
Only cross when the lights go off and barriers open
If there are no lights, drivers should stop when the barrier begins to close and not cross until it opens
At open crossings with no gates or lights, look both ways and listen before you cross

"Motorists must be aware of the rules, which are simple, logical and well signed. The risk in trying to save two minutes jumping a level crossing just isn't worth it."

British Transport Police Deputy Chief Constable Paul Crowther welcomed the move, saying level crossing incidents were "wholly avoidable" and changing driver behaviour was the "only sustainable solution".

He also suggested placing fixed cameras at "hot-spot" level crossings to help reduce disruption and the risk to life.

Responding to the calls for mandatory testing on level crossings, a Department for Transport spokesman said: "Theory test questions are selected at random, with no single topic guaranteed, because we want candidates to know all the rules of the road rather than just specific areas they know will be covered in the test.

"However, after close consultation with the rail industry, we have recently incorporated more questions into the theory test on level crossing safety and we have expanded the information on level crossings in the Highway Code.

"In addition, our children's road safety campaign, Tales of the Road, includes guidance on how pedestrians can use level crossings safely."

Examples of misuse include rushing across after the warning sequence has already begun, ignoring the flashing lights and klaxon - rather like running a red traffic light - to jumping over or manoeuvring around the barrier after it has already been lowered.

Accidents down

According to a Network Rail spokeswoman, people think: "'I need to get home, I can beat that train'. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't."

The 2009 figures show a slight decrease in accidents from the previous year.

There were 3,242 recorded incidents of misuse or error, down from 3,479 in 2008; there were 14 collisions between vehicles and trains, down from 20 in 2008; and 13 deaths, reduced from 15 in 2008.

The spokeswoman said the recorded incidents were those recorded by CCTV, by train drivers or by rail workers, but added the actual number was likely to be higher.

The call for compulsory testing for learner drivers is the latest element of a four-year public awareness campaign that includes TV and radio advertising.

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