By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Maryland officials who oversee the Chesapeake Bay Bridge yesterday defended their response to a fatal accident on Sunday that snarled traffic for miles and confirmed accounts that the crash began when a teen driver sideswiped a truck.
In a news conference yesterday in Baltimore, Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Marcus Brown said the driver, 19-year-old Candy Lynn Baldwin, had given police an account of the accident similar to the one she gave Monday in an interview with The Washington Post. In that interview, Baldwin said she had fallen asleep while driving on the narrow span.
Brown said that police were still waiting for blood tests to determine if Baldwin had alcohol or drugs in her system. He said the results are expected in about a week. He said that no decisions about charges will be made until the end of the police investigation, which a spokesman said could take weeks, if not longer.
Despite complaints about delays from motorists on both sides of the Chesapeake who sat for hours, officials from the transportation authority said their top priority was safety over controlling congestion.
"We handled it as well as we could under the circumstances," said Ronald L. Freeland, the authority's executive secretary. He said that, within half an hour of the accident, state roadway signs were warning motorists about bridge delays.
Freeland also defended the use of the concrete Jersey barriers that formed the bridge's side railings. One of them gave way during the accident, and a tractor-trailer driven by John R. Short, 57, of Willards, Md., plunged into the water below. Short, hauling refrigerated chicken for the Mountaire Farms poultry company, died in the crash. His company said a memorial service for Short will be Saturday in Willards.
Freeland said that authorities are still testing the bridge but that so far the barriers seemed to have performed as designed. He said that the impact of the truck, about 80,000 pounds moving at 55 mph, was more than the barriers were intended to bear.
The eastbound span reopened Monday, with the gap bridged by a steel beam. Freeland said that this arrangement was secure: "We took precautions to make sure the temporary fix is safe."
At the time of the accident, the bridge's larger westbound span was closed for maintenance, and eastbound and westbound cars were sharing the two-lane eastbound span. Freeland said that this practice was "not the optimum way to do business" but that it was still a safe option. He noted that the bridge had just one span for its first two decades.
State officials said there were 259 collisions on the Bay Bridge from January 2004 to December 2007. Of these, 24 percent occurred during two-way operations, officials said, but they could not provide figures on how often the bridge was used in that configuration.
A motorist caught in the jam was Kellie Meehan of Alexandria, who said she spent hours waiting on the bridge's western approaches. She said that, although she noted the roadway sign messages and called a hotline that warned of a backup of more than two miles, state officials could have done more to keep the traffic situation from deteriorating so drastically.
Until she reached the bridge, "I never saw a transportation authority truck, a police car -- nothing," Meehan said.