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February 3: Safety First

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It should be obvious to drivers that a car is no match for a train, but the number of accidents at railroad crossings steadily increased in the early years of the Twentieth Century. At that time, few crossings had signs or warning lights. Drivers were urged to pause and look before crossing the tracks.

On this date in 1923, the Railroad Commissioners announced that some progress had been made in reducing accidents. From 1921 to 1922, such accidents had dropped by thirty percent even though the number of licensed vehicles had increased by ten percent. They believed that the Railroad Commission’s “Safety First” campaign played a role in the reduction. With a commitment to further reducing the danger of railroad crossings, the Commission designated the week of February 5 as “Safety First Week.” Churches, schools, and public clubs and organizations were urged to promote safety at the crossings. A public meeting was scheduled at the Bismarck Auditorium to kick off the week.

The commission noted that the demands of modern transportation placed lives in jeopardy. According to Federal records, from 1915 to 1923 almost two thousand people were killed at railroad crossings. Eighty-six percent of those fatalities involved automobiles.

Today, most crossings have signage, signal lights, and arms that block vehicles from crossing. One might think that fatalities would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In 2018, a driver waited for a train to pass and then proceeded to cross. A train coming in the other direction had been blocked from view, and the result was fatal. In 2021 two people were killed in separate accidents. In both cases the victims went around the safety barriers in an effort to beat the trains. Police pleaded with the public to stay behind the barriers and wait for trains to pass.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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