"Operators are trained to stop, open their bus doors, look and listen before proceeding through a grade crossing. Failure to follow the safety procedure is a six-point violation that results in a written warning and appropriate training. Any employee who accumulates 24 points is terminated," said MTA spokesman Terry Owens.

Train crossings are not a significant part of driver training discussions, even though the penalties for disobeying crossing laws can be severe, said Craig Talbott, vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association Inc. In Maryland, if a driver receives a ticket for illegally crossing a railroad track, the driver's commercial license may be revoked for 60 days, he said.

If drivers' reactions aren't uniform, neither are the safety measures in place to protect them.

The SHA receives about $2.3 million a year from the Federal Highway Administration for rail crossing improvements at state roads. The agency works with the owner of the tracks on design and engineering aspects of each project and provides the funding, said SHA spokesman David Buck.

"It's up to the owner to deliver the project," Buck said.

Eight crossing improvement projects totaling $3 million have been scheduled for the next fiscal year.

The Halethorpe crossing, which runs through an industrial park and past CSX Corp.'s Baltimore headquarters, carries a heavy mix of traffic — nearly 7,000 vehicles daily — of tractor-trailers, FedEx delivery trucks, buses and cars.

Federal records show an average of 55 trains, traveling at speeds up to 50 mph, use the crossing daily. But locals scoff at that reported volume.

"Hardly any at all," said Fred Harris, a retired truck driver who was getting a cup of coffee and an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich at Bakery Express adjacent to the crossing. "It's dead quiet."

Zaccagnino, 35, who grew up in Arbutus and uses Hollins Ferry Road daily to run errands and visit her parents, agreed.

"It was very odd. I never remember seeing a train there. I asked my mother and she doesn't remember seeing trains, either," she said.

People who live or work near railroad crossings often become crash victims because they grow accustomed to the intersection's normal operations, said Russ Quimby, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator who is now a railroad safety consultant in Omaha, Neb.

"Generally, the people who have them nearby and cross every day, they get used to not seeing trains go by," so the vehicle driver's mind is often elsewhere and not focused on whether a train is coming, Quimby said. When it comes to the cause behind these crashes, he said, "it's mostly mental."

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.