Home | Features | Editorial | Say What?

Say What?

Font size: Decrease font Enlarge font
Say What?

Is blowing a horn the best way to get your attention?

For those of you who have long ago given up trying to figure out how people think, the letters CR are short for conditioned response. That is a term derived from Pavlov’s experiments on dogs. As I understand it we can all be trained to respond to various stimuli. Sounds weird to some but pretty logical when you give it some thought. So here is some thought.

The other day a neighbor had the temerity to write a letter to the local rag complaining about the on-going stream of locomotive horns being blown for the nearby grade crossing. (In the summer it can become annoying, what with windows open and patio sitting.) Anyway this kindly soul expressed himself.

As is with most anything in Bonner County these days there isn’t a subject that won’t draw some comment from the other side. As in a tennis match there was a ‘back atcha’ comment saying how much they enjoyed the horns and if the other guy didn’t like them he should move. (Standard North Idaho response to any criticism of things around here, especially if you think the criticizer is from California)

Now I happen to know a little about the subject, including what it would take to get a silent crossing. I too hear all those horns that prompted the first letter. I also know more than my share of stuff about railroading. I have to agree with the party of the first part that there is a limit to how many decibels of calculated engine noise that is reasonable and acceptable. And to the party of the second part, I don’t intend on moving. Been here too long to even consider it. Train sounds are, after all, a part of the Bonner County ambiance

The problem, assuming you agree that there is a problem, stems from the assumption that if blowing a horn for crossings is one way to get your attention then making the sound louder would reduce the number of idiots who like the challenge of beating the train.

(If by now you find this boring you can (1) be assured it will not get any better or (2) go on to some other story.)

By law the engineer is required to blow or honk for each grade crossing by emitting two longs, a short and a long , the latter which must be blown WHILE IN THE CROSSING. (Hard to imagine that by the time the train is right in front of you the horn does any good at all, but that’s the law (CR). Just like a well-trained dog you are supposed to react to the sound and behave accordingly.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way. You might not believe it but people run into the side of trains which is one reason you see all those little reflective patches on the side of cars when you are patiently waiting when the gates are down and the lights are flashing. It is sad to say but the tales of grade crossing accidents are hard to comprehend; but then, there are many things hard to comprehend in these days of change and they don’t just involve matters of safety, i.e. what the Liberals will think of next.

One of the problems we have observed is that we get more horn than we deserve because the engineer either doesn’t care or can’t figure out how to space out the blasts so that the last one is in the crossing (it involves train speed and distance to the crossing). The result is that he throws in a couple of extra honks to make them come out even or he makes each blast extra long. In either case we are getting far more bang for our buck than the law requires. The subsequent CR is that we either tolerate the sound and concentrate on the view or we just get ticked off. So much for conditioning,  in the name of safety and the bureaucracy.

Now for the really serious part. The engineer, whose locomotive hits something, anything, is indeed very unfortunate. We know that they seldom if ever get over the fact that someone may have died or was killed right in front of them and there was nothing to be done to prevent it. That some of the incidents involved animals really isn’t a big help. So when you are trying to get a few more minutes sleep on Sunday morning and there are some extra blasts of that three-chime horn you would prefer to believe it is because a few deer are crossing or that someone is late for church. In the back of your mind is the possibility the engineer has been up and awake for hours and outwardly resents the fact you are tucked in. On the other hand, the engineers who seem to use their horns excessively may just be those who have been involved in one of those tragic accidents

If we could only get drivers to calm down when they see a train coming, respect the gates and not ignore flashing red lights we might generate some support from the bureaucrats who are students of Pavlov and his work. Their reasoning has to be that if some ear shattering sound reduces the number of fatalities then more shrill, penetrating sounds will do better. There probably is a ratio of longs and shorts to accidents; if not, maybe we can get some baseball nut to come up with some stats that will make our case.

Fortunately there are solutions that don’t involve moving: Quiet Zone Technologies according to November TRAINS magazine. Called Automated Horn System, a stationary devices alerts the motorist with a locomotive-sound horn that is focused on the driver and not the surrounding county. When the automated horn is working the locomotive engineer is not required to begin the federally mandated sequence, thus it’s more quiet. Of course this costs big bucks

These wayside systems are working in five states. Since one of the states is California maybe there is hope for Idaho. Of course, Washington and Oregon will have to pave the way. Anyway, there is a possibility that sometime in the distant future there will be an alternative to a sometimes endless stream of blasts from a locomotive horn.

To those of us who are not using the crossing, believe me, we have heard the message. Unfortunately at this point there are not enough folks tired of the sound to justify a quiet crossing. Maybe the teens with their head phones are on to something.

Now the whistle of a steam locomotive is another story...

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (0 posted)

total: | displaying:

Post your comment

  • Bold
  • Italic
  • Underline
  • Quote

Please enter the code you see in the image:

  • Email to a friend Email to a friend
  • Print version Print version
  • Plain text Plain text

Author info

Paul Rechnitzer Paul Rechnitzer Transplanted 30 years ago, Paul is a retiree from the oil business who knows no other place he would rather live and breathe local history.

Tagged as:

No tags for this article

Rate this article