What should you do if you’re in a car stuck on train tracks?

A Massachusetts railroad crossing crash last week left one woman seriously injured.

A commuter rail train crosses Butler Street in Belmont. An inbound Fitchburg Line train hit a car last Friday at the crossing.
A commuter rail train crosses Butler Street in Belmont. An inbound Fitchburg Line train hit a car last Friday at the crossing. –Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe

Commuters in Belmont were witnesses to a nightmare scene Friday morning. With a commuter train barreling down, a mother and three children scrambled to escape their SUV, which had become stuck on the tracks.

Two of the children were able to get out of the car in time, but before the woman was able to get the third out of the backseat, the train hit. Fortunately, the child, a 6-year-old boy, was unhurt. But the collision sent the car spinning, hitting and seriously injuring the woman.

Officials have yet to determine whether the car broke down on the tracks or was hemmed in by traffic. But no one contests how frightening it is to be stuck in the path of a speeding locomotive.

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According to federal data, there were more than 2,000 vehicle-train collisions last year—half of which occurred within five miles of the driver’s home. And drivers are 20 times more likely to die in a crash with a train than in a crash with another car, according to Operation Lifesaver, a rail crossing safety awareness nonprofit.

“The simplest thing to know is that in a collision between a train and a passenger vehicle, the passenger vehicle always loses,” said Jon Paul, senior manager of traffic safety and public affairs for AAA Northeast.

Some tips on how to avoid being one of those statistics:

Respect the gate…

The first thing to know about getting stuck on a railroad crossing is don’t get stuck on a railroad crossing.

“Approach a train crossing as if a train is present,” said Paul, urging drivers to be cautious around crossings, even in the apparent absence of a train. And when a train is coming, don’t try to beat it across.

“Respect the gate. Don’t try to make it under the gate,” Paul said, also noting that drivers should stay outside the marked “stop line.” According to Operation Lifesaver, trains are three feet wider than the tracks on both sides.

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The public safety group also notes that driving under or around lowered gates is “illegal and deadly.”

…until you shouldn’t.

In the case that one does get stuck on the track, between the two arms of the gates, Paul says “drive right through it.”

Such gates are on a hinge and made of light material, and thus easily breakable, he said. As is written on the Indiana Department of Transportation website, the purpose to railroad crossing gates is “as a warning to drivers, not as an impenetrable barrier.”

Room for one more?

Even when the gates are raised, drivers should check to make sure there is ample room on the other side of the tracks, as a short video from Operation Lifesaver illustrates. According to the group, the average car length is 15 feet, and any closer to the rail than that distance is unsafe.

Operation Lifesaver even has a catchy phrase for the rule: “If it won’t fit, don’t commit.”

According to the group, motorists should only drive over a rail crossing if they are able to do so completely without stopping.

Remember, the train isn’t going to stop

If the car is unable to be moved immediately from the train’s path—for whatever reason—the message is again fairly simple.

“Get out of the car immediately,” Paul said. “Don’t expect that the train is going to stop.”

It’s worth repeating: Get out and away from the car.

While an engineer can work to slow the train, as occurred in the Belmont crash, even when the emergency brake is applied, it can take more than a mile for a train to fully stop. According to Libby Rector Snipe, the communications director for Operation Lifesaver, the stopping distance for a freight train is roughly 18 football fields.

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Paul says there is a myth, perhaps disseminated by movies or popular culture, that the train will be able to brake in time to stop for a trapped vehicle. But as Paul noted, the mile stopping distance is much farther than one’s field of vision.

“Get out of the car and run,” he reiterated.

Run—but not in the direction you might think

Particularly for those in a close call, the “get out and run” direction is slightly nuanced. While it may feel instinctive to run away from the direction from which the train is coming, that is actually the exact opposite of what experts recommend.

“If you run in the same direction the train is traveling, when the train hits your car you could be injured by flying debris,” Rector Snipes said.

Instead, she said to run in the direction the train is coming at a 45 degree angles away from the tracks. And run far.

Paul says the force with which a train can hit can push the car several hundred feet, but thats not accounting for flying debris from the collision. As any number of internet videos will illustrate, train-car crashes can yield an explosive result.

“We recommend running as far away as possible,” Rector Snipes said.

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