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Google technology to alert drivers nearing rail crossings

A train struck a vehicle on the tracks

A train struck a vehicle on the tracks at the Mill Road crossing in Riverhead on June 18, 2015, a Long Island Rail Road spokesman said. Credit: News 12

A partnership between the federal government and Google could help prevent accidents at the nation's railroad crossings, including nearly 300 LIRR crossings, officials said Monday.

The Federal Railroad Administration announced Monday that it is partnering with the tech giant on a plan to automatically alert drivers using Google's turn-by-turn navigation system as they approach any of the 250,000 railroad crossings in the United States.

In a letter to Google thanking the company for its cooperation, FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg noted that while more and more drivers are relying on mobile devices for driving directions, few apps notify drivers of rail crossings, or even identify them at all.

"When drivers are alerted or reminded that there is a rail crossing ahead, they may be more likely to remain alert, take greater caution, and obey the signal crossings," Feinberg said. "Drivers will also be more likely to pay closer attention to their whereabouts, and to take note of crossing safety equipment."

FRA officials said 214 people died in highway-rail collisions in 2014 -- the first year-over-year increase this decade.

"We're happy to help the Federal Railroad Administration as we're always looking for new ways to make maps useful to our users," a Google spokesman said.

In February, a Metro-North train struck a vehicle at a Valhalla crossing in Westchester County, killing the motorist and six train passengers. The incident sparked a Metropolitan Transportation Authority initiative to reduce accidents at railroad crossings, including throughout the Long Island Rail Road.

Also taking advantage of geographic information system technology, crossing safety advertisements will appear on travel websites when users plan a trip that would take them through an MTA railroad crossing.

MTA officials Monday applauded the latest effort by Google and the FRA to curb crossing accidents.

"The LIRR strongly supports any effort to help increase the safety of railroad crossings," MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. "We are heartened to hear of this initiative."

In addition to Google, FRA officials said they are reaching out to other navigation technology companies, including Apple, MapQuest, Garmin and TomTom, to form similar partnerships.

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