At the Crossroads: Action by Stop, look, listen

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in the last ten years about 3,000 railroad crossing accidents have taken place with an annual rate of 1,000 deaths.  Conrail reports that almost two-thirds of the crossing accidents occur during the day.  A Minnesota rail safety project designed to reduce crossing fatalities documented that the average freight train is about 1 to 1¼ miles in length (90 to 120 rail cars) and when moving at 55 miles an hour can take a mile or more to stop after the locomotive engineer fully applies the emergency brake.

Two major points of view exist in analyzing the reason for rail crossing accidents: (1) driver error in decision making or (2) failure in rail crossing equipment or negligence on the part of those maintaining the crossing.  Each year both groups site examples of each explanation.  However, regardless of the predominate cause of rail crossing accidents, there is something that comes over drivers when they are faced with blinking red lights and a lowered crossing bar coupled with an oncoming train.  A decision making process transpires that weighs the risk of being pulverized by the train compared to wasting a few minutes waiting at the crossing or being the person that receives numerous dirty looks or gestures while holding everyone up at the crossing.  Each of us when presented with this decision consider the options, risks, and consequences before acting.  

Similar to the last post, the train crossing mirrors a decision crossroads.   Some decisions we face are as dangerous as a rail crossing given their potential impact on the future of our well-being, career, or relationships.  Sadly, we may not realize the consequences of the decision until we are in the middle of it, just like the driver in the video above.  So, how do we make better decisions drawing on the rail crossing as an example?

From a relatively young age, we teach children what to do when approaching a rail crossing:

  • Stop
  • Look
  • Listen


Before we make a big decision, it is important to stop for a moment and collect the information necessary to make an informed decision.  It is important that this part of the process occurs before the actual decision is made.  When someone stops in the middle of the decision to think, the chances of being hit by the train definitely increases.   The question that I ask groups is how close do they want the train to be when they are sitting on the tracks trying to decide?  Several years ago I worked with a law enforcement organization dealing with an increase in traffic accidents that was draining their limited resources.  As we discussed the accidents, the most reoccurring cause seemed to relate to rush hour drivers wanting to turn against traffic to only change their mind when oncoming cars provided closer than anticipated.   Several officers referred to the behavior as the “deer in the headlights” approach to driving.  Basically, more than a few drivers described how mid turn a go-no go decision process occurred and the car was stopped for this process.  It is important to stop to think before acting.  


Just as it is important to look down the tracks and judge the situation before pulling onto the tracks, it is important to consider the potential options and possible outcomes before making the decision.  As a decision maker, it is important to carefully review the situation.  Three key elements should be included in this review: options, risks, and consequences.  In working with managers in a variety of organizations, there seems to be an appreciation for looking before acting, but the picture many times is incomplete.  It is important not to over think situations, but it is important to be comprehensive.    


We all have different experiences and it is important to learn from what others have to say.  Most of us naturally want to seek the advice of others before making a major decision.  The real challenge arises in listening to the advice when it runs counter to what we want to decide.  Anyone with preteens and teenagers are very familiar with this phenomenon.  The typical scenario works like this: the child has an idea that requires the approval or at least support of a parent, the child asks the advice of the parent on the matter, the parent gives advice that runs counter to the desired outcome of the child, and the child decides the parent is not very smart and much too old to help in this situation.  As adults, we fall into the same trap.  Most of us do not want to truly listen to someone else’s opinion; we want validation for our own beliefs.  It is important to listen to others and draw on their experience.

Tough decisions are tough to make, but this simple process will increase our chances of making better decisions, more often.

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