Trucks vs. Bridges: Dangerous and Costly

By: - December 6, 2019 12:00 am

The Caterpillar tanker truck weighed 70,000 pounds, and when it struck an overpass above Interstate 65 in downtown Nashville in April 2018, it twisted one of the steel support beams as if it were a pipe cleaner.

The driver of the tractor-trailer that was hauling the tanker had ventured more than a hundred miles from his approved route through Arkansas and west Tennessee. Nobody was hurt, but the driver’s mistake snarled rush-hour traffic and forced workers to labor for more than 16 hours to remove the damaged beam and extricate the truck. Repairs cost nearly $1 million.

“I’ve never seen damage that bad in 30 years,” said Ted Kniazewycz, director of the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s structures division.

So-called bridge strikes occur all over the country when trucks or their loads are too tall to pass under highway bridges and overpasses. They damage valuable infrastructure, create epic traffic jams and can be hazardous for other drivers who may be pelted with fallen debris or forced to swerve into another car.

“Bridge strikes are potentially catastrophic,” said Darrin Roth, a vice president at the American Trucking Associations, a trade group. “There have been bridges that have been brought down or severely damaged to the point they have to be replaced.”

To prevent them, more states and cities are using infrared sensors and lasers that detect tall vehicles and warn drivers to turn around or take another route.

In Texas, which had about a hundred reported bridge strikes last year, transportation officials have installed 20 such over-height warning systems that use LED beams and flashing lights.

In Virginia, the transportation department also uses electronic detection systems and warning signs to alert drivers of oversized vehicles and direct them to the nearest exit or pull-off area.

And in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo put $25 million into this year’s budget to pay for enhanced technology to help curb bridge strikes.

Parkway Problems

New York state has some big bridge-strike worries because of its dozens of parkways with low clearance designed for cars and built in the 1930s and ’40s. Trucks generally are 13 or 13½ feet tall, and modern-day bridges typically are 15 to 18 feet high, according to the trucking association’s Roth.

New York’s parkways prohibit trucks, buses and other tall vehicles, but that doesn’t mean drivers always follow the rules.

Since 2015, the state has had nearly 1,100 bridge strikes, many of them on parkways, according to the state Department of Transportation. In the past several years, transportation officials have installed detection and warning systems.

In August, the agency completed a $1.8 million bridge-strike prevention project on a Westchester County parkway outside of New York City, where between 2008 and 2018 one bridge was hit 130 times.

The agency set up detectors at locations where trucks improperly get onto the parkway and installed cameras that alert police and the state traffic management center.

The state’s over-height detection systems have reduced the number of bridge strikes, said Todd Westhuis, the agency’s chief of staff, who called it “technology that works.”

Bridge strikes can be deadly.

In 2010, a double-decker bus slammed into a railroad bridge on a New York parkway, killing four passengers.

In 2015, a man was killed and three people were injured after a tractor-trailer with an oversized load struck a bridge under construction in Texas, causing concrete beams to fall onto the vehicles below.

And in August, a truck in Ohio hauling a huge dust collector used for farming hit an overpass, dislodging the equipment onto the road, which killed a driver who crashed into it.

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.