Fatal bus-train crash reveals diverse safety laws

Shortly before 9 a.m. on the morning of September 18th an Ottawa transit bus drove through flashing red lights and crossing gates into a VIA rail passenger train leaving Ottawa for Toronto. The result was six people on the bus killed, including the driver, and around 30 injured. The National Transportation Board of Canada will ultimately render their verdict of what caused the crash, but preliminary factors already disclosed bring to light the diverse vehicle and traffic laws in different provinces of Canada, as is also the case in the United States.

More specifically, in the province of Ontario, transit buses are not required to stop for railroad crossings that are protected with lights and gates if the lights are not flashing and the gates are not down. In Quebec, however, all buses are required by law to come to a complete stop at all railroad crossings regardless of whether the warning devices are operating or not.

Now let’s discuss the laws for New York state regarding buses and at-grade railroad crossings. First, let’s address school buses. In New York, all school buses MUST stop at all railroad grade crossings, whether or not there are any passengers on the bus or not. The bus must stop within 50 feet of, but not less than 15 feet, from the nearest rail. Although no law requires a driver to open the door before crossing, it is recommended by the State Education Department that school bus drivers shut off radios and fans and open their window and door before crossing tracks. There are two exceptions to this which I shall address later in this article.

For transit buses, including tour buses, which I drove for seven years as a retirement job, New York State law mandates that these buses stop at grade crossings, regardless of the activation of warning devices, if there are any (even one) passengers on the bus. However, if the driver was the only person on the bus, it is not a requirement to stop.

I mentioned that there were two exceptions to the requirement for a bus to stop. Exception one is at any railroad crossing that is controlled by a three-color traffic signal. A good example of this is the crossing on the west side of Gouverneur on U.S. Route 11near Mullin’s Restaurant. If the signal is green, there is no requirement for a bus to stop.

The second exception is at any railroad crossing that displays an “Exempt” sign on the railroad crossing warning sign. This means that although the crossing warning sign is still there, the track is out of service and that there are no trains on this track. Again, where the exempt sign is shown, there is no requirement for a bus to stop. I can’t think where there is such a crossing locally, but there are several in the general upstate area. One that I recall is on state Route 28 between Indian Lake and Warrensburg.

Notwithstanding any state or provincial laws, any bus company or agency has the right to require their drivers to stop at ALL crossings. This is just an added degree of safety above and beyond the mandates of the law.

It will remain to be seen what changes, if any, Ontario makes to the laws applicable to transit buses in the wake of the recent tragedy. The same can be said for those states where bus laws applicable to grade crossings are less stringent than in New York.

For more articles on traffic law and safety, go to the traffic safety board’s web site at: www.franklincony.org and click on “Traffic Safety Board” under departments then look for Did You Know articles under “services.”