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This agency is partnering with Google to alert drivers of railroad crossing risks

Oil Collapse-RailroadsOil Collapse-Railroads
A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont.Photograph by Matthew Brown — AP

On June 29, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that Google will be the first of several technology and mapping companies to use FRA data about railroad crossings to implement new safety features into mapping services.

GPS coordinates for nearly 250,000 road-level rail crossings across the U.S. will be used to add audio and visual alerts to mobile navigation systems, in the hopes of reducing collisions and fatalities at those crossings.

The move comes with the emergence of a disturbing trend. After decades of decline, collisions between cars and trains at crossings has risen over the past five years, from 1,934 incidents in 2009 to 2,280 in 2014, according to the FRA.

Some of that rise is due to the economic recovery, which has put more cars and trains in motion. But, while no comprehensive study of the causes yet exists, the very mobile devices that the new program will leverage seem to be another culprit.

“A lot of collisions involve not paying attention,” says Joyce Rose, president of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit that advocates for railway safety. “Either being distracted by electronics, or not paying attention to the warning signs.” The most serious form of electronic distraction is texting while driving, which according to the Department of Transportation killed 3,154 drivers in 2013.

But some car-rail collisions in recent years point to a different problem. In instances including two Metro-North line collisions in 2008 and a 2014 collision between a Prius and a Caltrain, witnesses and survivors described drivers following GPS instructions and turning directly onto train tracks—apparently so focused on their electronic guides that they didn’t notice warning signal equipment that normally includes flashing lights and bells.

Though an FRA representative declined to comment on any deeper connection between the twinned rise of navigation systems and grade-crossing collisions, Rose speculates that drivers may turn onto tracks because they aren’t able to accurately gauge the distances to turns that GPS systems announce. In those cases, active train-crossing warnings integrated into GPS systems might have prevented collisions.

Google (GOOG) is the first company to have agreed to implement such a system, but an FRA spokesperson expressed confidence that other map-system makers, including Apple, TomTom, and Garmin, will be on board soon. No timeline has been announced for the arrival of the measures, but the FRA says they will provide guidance and resources while the technology companies implement them.

While the new feature may save lives, it won’t eliminate the main risk at railroad crossings, which according to both the FRA and Operation Lifesaver is poor driver judgment. About 25% of car-train collisions are caused by drivers who thread their way past safety gates in an attempt to ‘race’ trains through crossings.