The Bellingham Herald recently answered a reader's question about where drivers should stop for railroad crossings, and whether you can proceed if the train is still distant.
The answers: Stop for a railroad crossing no less than 15 feet from the tracks. As for proceeding, the law says that once a driver stops for a signal device warning of an approaching train, he or she is not to proceed until the crossing can be made safely. (Bold type is mine, for emphasis.)
Based on my own experience, I would instead advise, "do not proceed until the train has passed."
I blogged about this on pemco.com a few years ago. When I was almost 17, my buddy Greg and I went night skiing at Snoqualmie Pass. This was before today's I-90 superfreeway, when the route to North Bend and beyond was via U.S. 10, a four-lane highway. West of North Bend near today's Snoqualmie Casino, the highway dropped down a long hill before entering town on what's been renamed West North Bend Way.
One mile west of town we approached a train crossing. Suddenly the red crossing lights flashed and bells began clanging. A train approached, somewhere far enough away that it wasn't visible. I slowed until, nearly stopped at the crossing, we looked both ways and still saw no train. "Hit it!" Greg yelled. I mashed the gas and drove onward, too impatient to wait.
Immediately, police lights pierced the darkness in my rear-view mirror and a State Patrol trooper pulled me over. "The next time you come to a train crossing, stop until the train has passed," he said. "That's what the red lights and loud bell are for!" I sheepishly received my first ticket.
So I submit, a crossing "made safely" does not mean to use your judgment to decide if you can make it across the tracks before the train arrives. It means stop. Wait for the train to pass. Then go.
Herald article focused on what's likely to happen if you risk dodging a train. Find out in, "Ever driven over a soda can? That's about the same as a
train driving over your car."