NTSB pins blame on truck driver in Chesapeake Bay Bridge car plunge

Video shows Morgan Lake after she emerged from her sunken car and swam to safety. She describes what it was like to fall off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and what she did to survive. (The Washington Post)

The National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released Wednesday that a truck driver who was unfamiliar with traffic patterns on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and wasn’t paying attention to the road as traffic slowed was likely to blame for the July collision that forced a woman’s car off the eastbound span of the bridge.

The tractor-trailer rammed into a 2007 Chrysler Sebring driven by Morgan Lake of Calvert County, sending her car into a second vehicle and then over the 34-inch concrete Jersey wall into the water, 27 feet below. Lake survived the terrifying plunge by climbing out of her car through a shattered window and swimming to the safety of a nearby bridge pier. Video of her clinging to a rock before being rescued went viral. 

Gabor Lovasz, who was driving the tractor-trailer and refrigerated semitrailer for a Canadian company, was charged with negligence and other traffic infractions in August. Lovasz pleaded guilty two months later on four counts: failure to control speed on a highway to avoid a collision; negligent driving; driving “in excess of reasonable and prudent speed” on a highway; and unsafe lane changing. He was fined $450, according to court records.

In its final report, which echoed preliminary findings made public in August, the NTSB said Lovasz was looking in the driver-side rear-view mirror about a mile past the toll plaza on the eastbound span — a stretch that’s prone to traffic slowdowns. “He said that when he looked forward again, he saw that traffic was stopped, and he attempted to avoid colliding with the Chrysler by moving to the left,” the report said.

Lovasz had accelerated from 8 to 51 mph in the 60 seconds prior to slamming into Lake’s car and had reduced the tractor-trailer’s speed to 47 mph at the time of the crash, the report said. In the five seconds prior to the collision, Lake had slowed from 15 to 4 mph, it said, and she “had been applying the brakes intermittently during the deceleration.”

The truck “collided with the left rear corner of the Chrysler,” pushing it into the concrete Jersey barrier on the outside of the right lane, the report said. Lake’s car then collided with a Mazda and “was pushed up onto the barrier wall and then rode along the top of it, before falling approximately 27 feet into the Chesapeake Bay.”

The NTSB “determines that the probable cause ” of the July 19 accident “was the failure of the truck tractor driver to slow for traffic due to his inattention to the forward roadway while looking in his side view mirror. Contributing to the crash were the truck driver’s unfamiliarity with the area and lack of knowledge that traffic routinely slows on the eastbound span of the bridge after exiting the toll plaza and before entering the leftward curve.”

“Contributing to the severity of the crash were the unusual collision dynamics that allowed for a passenger vehicle to be pushed over the barrier wall and into the water,” the report said.

The accident — and Lake’s story of survival — attracted vast attention and put renewed white-knuckle focus on the 4.3-mile arched, dual-span Bay Bridge, which rises 186 feet above the bay at its highest point and has long terrified motoristsThe bridge is crossed by more than 25 million vehicles annually, connecting Washington’s urban centers and suburbs with the Eastern Shore, Ocean City and other coastal communities; but crossing it can be a harrowing experience, even in the best of conditions.

The AAA wrote to the NTSB days after Lake’s plunge, asking the federal agency to determine whether the bridge’s railings are high enough to prevent such accidents.

In its final report, the NTSB noted that the Maryland Transportation Authority “is currently studying the eastbound span for major deck rehabilitation” and that any “improvements to the bridge deck” would also include an upgrade to the barrier system.

The MDTA will also “improve speed-limit signage and speed transition areas” this spring, the report said, and will install signs with flashing lights that will warn drivers of congestion, heavy traffic and even the potential for stopped vehicles. The state will also install a “Do Not Tailgate” sign on the eastbound span, “to be illuminated during congestion or heavy traffic.” The agency is also requiring vehicles to use their headlights at all times on the bridge.

In a statement, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who requested an NTSB review of the incident last summer, said: “The report is a reminder of the areas on the bridge that require complete driver awareness. This factual data will help state officials improve the bridge’s safety for the upcoming season. But we can’t sit back with a sigh of relief. . . . The state of Maryland must remain committed to improving the safety of the bridge in the long-term. I expect relentless follow-through when it comes to safety. Everyone, no matter their destination, should feel safe when they drive across the Bay Bridge.”

The NTSB report closely followed a joint investigation by the Maryland Transportation Authority and Maryland State Police. In a statement Wednesday, MdTA said the new report, from the independent federal agency, “underscores the immense responsibility of each and every driver when traveling the Bay Bridge. Please keep your eyes on the road, don’t tailgate, and put your cell phones away.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

[This post, which was published at  11:46 a.m., was updated at 12:44 p.m.]

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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