Train Horns Save Hundreds of Lives, Yet Kill Thousands from Noise Exposure

Fatalities at railroad crossings decreased by several hundred (2007-2022), attributable in part to Federally-mandated train horns at crossings. Yet sleep disturbance from railway noise contributes significantly to the burden of disease, causal to thousands of disability-adjusted life years (DALY).

The Train Horn Rule was created following an increase in train collisions in the late 1980s at certain highway-rail grade crossings where nighttime whistle bans had been established, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). In 1994, Congress ordered the FRA to enact federal regulations requiring train horns to be sounded at all public highway-rail grade crossings. By 1996 a vehicle-train crash occurred in the US nearly every 90 minutes.  Further, at those crossings where train horns were not sounded (including gated crossings), motorists suffered an 84 percent increased likelihood of being hit by a train (source: Chicago Tribune).  Thirty years on, evidence presented by the National Safety Council (NSC) is clear: fatalities at railroad crossings decreased (2007-2022),  attributable in part to implementation of Federally-mandated train horns:

On the flip side of the decreased fatality rates are the grim chronic health statistics. The number of disability-adjusted life years (DALY) attributed to transportation noise in Sweden, a country where the health effects of environmental noise are well-studied, was estimated to be 41,033 years, with 36,711 (90%) related to road traffic and 4,322 (10%) related to railway traffic. The most important contributor to the disease burden was sleep disturbances, accounting for 22,218 DALY (54%), followed by annoyance, 12,090 DALY (30%), and cardiovascular diseases, 6,725 DALY (16%). The Swedish study concluded road traffic and railway noise contribute significantly to the burden of disease in Sweden each year (Eriksson C.Bodin al. (2017)  Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health,  43  (6) , pp. 519-525).

What can be done to mitigate the deleterious health effects of train noise while maintaining the protective safety benefits of train horns at highway-rail grade crossings?  A federal study ongoing since 2014 has shown that deaths do not rise when quiet zones are created, enabling trains to cross intersections without blowing their horns (source: Sun Sentinel). Some cities have implemented wayside horns, which sound at the crossing, not on the trains, limiting noise pollution. More research is needed to support a balance of the community safety and public health equities of these factors.  Nevertheless, the train noise problem continues to present a public health risk, as do the public safety issues.  Railroad deaths totaled 954 in 2022, an 11% increase from the 2021 total of 859 and the highest since 2007. Of the 954 deaths, 29% occurred at rail-crossings (NSC). The trade-off becomes a 'Hobson's choice' -- save hundreds of lives in the next few years or kill thousands over the ensuing decades. 

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