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Why are level crossings in France so deadly?

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Why are level crossings in France so deadly?
AFP
12:41 CET+01:00
Questions are once again being asked why so many people in France lose their lives at level crossings after a deadly collision between a school bus and a train.
The longstanding issue of safety at level crossings in France is once again in the spotlight after at least five school pupils were killed when a bus was mowed down by a train at a crossing in south west France.
 
The five youngsters were added to an ever growing number of people killed at level crossings in France in recent years. The numbers make for alarming reading.
 
In 2014 there were 121 collisions recorded at level crossings in France that left 25 people dead. Back in the year 2000 the death toll was 51. Last year in 2016 there were 31 deaths and 15 serious injuries after 111 accidents.
 
In all, between 2011 and 2016 187 people were killed at level crossings in France and scores more left seriously injured.
 
 
And the death toll in 2017 looks set to be the highest in many years. Even before Thursday's horrific crash the number killed at level crossings this year exceeds 30.
 
Unlike Thursday's collision, most accidents involve cars. Although in 2008 a collision between a schoolbus and train in the French Alps left eight dead.
 
In all, France has over 15,000 level crossings on its rail network, some of which are considered more dangerous than others. While over 10,000 have automatic barriers and warning lights, not all do.
 
In fact according to SNCF some 2,777 don't have barriers, only a sign that warns drivers of the crossing.
 
 
In November this year a couple and their 10-year-old child were killed at a level crossing at Bonneville-sur-Tues in Calvados, Normandy when their vehicle was hit by a train. There were no barrier at the crossing, nor were there lights.There was just a sign to indicate its presence on the road.
 
For French rail chiefs there is no doubt where the blame lies for the number of incidents.
 
"98 percent of accidents at level crossings are down to drivers not respecting the rules of the road," a source at SNCF told The Local. In other words drivers ignore closing barriers or drive around them - an offence that will result in a fine of €135 and four point penalty.
 
The rail chiefs list "impatience" as the number one cause for drivers illegally passing the barriers, followed by a lack of vigilance and non-compliance with the highway code.
 
 
The other two percent are caused by malicious acts, which could include the crossing being vandalised or damaged in some way.
 
According to SNCF in 59 percent of cases, drivers provoked accidents at level crossings by passing the barrier when they were closed or in the process of closing. In 38 percent of cases, drivers made an error and ended up stuck on the crossing.
 
A 2015 survey carried out by SNCF revealed one in five French drivers admitted illegally passing the barriers at a level crossing.
 
SNCF are also trying to raise awareness among drivers of the dangers of level crossings, notably among young motorists. For example many underestimate the distance needed for a train to come to a halt. If it is travelling at 100km/h it will need a kilometre to break to a standstill. 
 
But a source at SNCF also told The Local that safety at the crossings can always be improved, which is why they are currently spending around €40 million a year on revamping the level crossings to improve security.
 
And there is no doubt that some level crossings are deemed more dangerous than others. As of 2017 there are 162 considered more dangerous than others.
 
Although SNCF says often it is just acase of those with most road and rail traffic are the ones where most accidents occur. In all some 15 percent of accidents are concentrated in one percent of crossings.
 
SNCF no longer build new ones and are slowly and each year six or seven of the crossings, deemed the most risky, or where accidents regularly take place, are taken away altogether. 
 
 
 
But the cost of removing them can be extremely expensive - up to €15 million, due to the need to build tunnels or bridges. 
 
Rail chiefs are also spending millions on experimenting with new technology to boost safety, for example if an obstacle is detected on a crossing then a message is relayed to nearby trains which triggers the breaking system.
 
Cameras have also been installed at crossings to catch rogue drivers who refuse to wait and zig zag their way through the barriers. Authorities say the cameras are having a big impact in cutting down the number of infractions by drivers at crossings.
 
SNCF lists instructions on its website for how to act as a driver or cyclist at a level crossing and urges motorists to show patience and always stop before a level crossing where there are no barriers present. The onus is onthe motorist to check to see whether it is safe to cross.
 
The video below is a reminder of the rules to follow at level crossings.
 
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