Level Crossings, Driver Behaviour and Politicians 1

Victoria has experienced several more level crossing incidents in late-March 2008. The significance of one of the recent incidents is that a vehicle driver survived, as happened with the Kerang incident which resulted in multiple fatalities. Curiously, the most recent survival also involved a vehicle colliding with the side of a train already on the railway crossing.

In this case there were no fatalities as the train was freight. But the driver’s comments are interesting. 59-year-old Laurie Heffernan was reported by AAP as admitting using the crossing, 1.5 kilometres from his residence, over 30,000 times and has recommended that freight trains have reflective strips on the sides and that engines should have flashing lights. The incident occurred on a misty morning at 7am.

On radio interviews, Heffernan has also blamed the layout of the road and rail crossing and the proximity of sheds that obscure part of the view of the crossing. This seems a peculiar excuse for someone who must use the crossing on a daily basis.

Yes, Heffernan was travelling slower than the speed limit. Yes, the collision was a glancing blow, but the collision still bounced him “back a bit and it spun me”. He says “If I’d have been travelling faster I probably would’ve gone under it… I would’ve done a lot worse, I mightn’t be talking with you right now.”

His responses, sadly, support the Victorian government’s push for increased driver awareness of level crossings.

The crossing, at Terang, has no flashing lights or boom gates but has recently had rumble strips installed. There was no indication whether Mr Heffernan noticed the rumble strips but he stated they are “useless”.

I have great respect for Victoria’s Transport Minister, Lynne Kosky, having met her before she became a parliamentarian, but her comments after this most recent incident are alarming and ill-advised

Her government established a parliamentary inquiry into level crossings as a result of an increase in incidents and fatalities. That inquiry has received many submissions and has had its timeline expanded to October 2008. The inquiry is not a court case so is not sub-judice but the Minister has knee-capped the inquiry by stating that various safety control measures are not needed or cannot be afforded for rural crossings. Her comments could make some of the legitimate findings of the inquiry look stupid. The inquiry cannot now recommend boom gates on every rail crossing. It is highly unlikely that grade separations could ever be seriously recommended.

How such an intelligent parliamentarian could place such limitations on the inquiry, or her advisers let her say such things, is very surprising. In this circumstance politician-speak of “let’s wait and hear what the rail safety experts in the parliamentary inquiry will say when they report to Parliament in October” would have been appropriate.

Kosky is forever going to have to explain to the families of victims of rail incidents why one particular rail crossing had less control measures than another crossing down the track. If she had applied the political nous that I know she has, she would have increased the validity of the parliamentary inquiry that her own Labor Government established.

As it is she has shown that it is not only America that has politicians who resemble Tonya Harding.

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