washingtonpost.com
Bay Bridge Crash
'It Was Like a Bomb Had Gone Off'

Lon Anderson
Director of Public and Government Affairs, AAA Mid-Atlantic
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 2:00 PM

The deadly crash that closed one span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge this weekend unfolded in a few frightening moments, as a swerving car sent a tractor-trailer banging against both sides of the narrow bridge, then riding along the top of the bridge's railing for 100 feet before it tumbled over the side, according to officials and witnesses.

Lon Anderson, director of Public and Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a statement that the accident raises three critical questions that need to be examined: The engineering failure of the bridge to restrain the truck and keep it on the bridge, the impact of two-way traffic on the bridge and the issue of inadequate capacity of the bridge across the bay.

Anderson was online Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the investigation.

A transcript follows.

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Anonymous: So the AAA will support the large increase in gas taxes and tolls necessary to improve traffic capacity and across the bay? And to strengthen the barriers of the bridge to prevent a once-in-58-year accident?

As I tell my kids, everything in life is a tradeoff. Yeah, another Bay bridge would be great, as would stronger walls. Shoot, I want a free pony, too. But I much prefer the $2.50 toll and taxes where they are, thanks very much.

Lon Anderson: Hey anonymous--great questions because you've got a couple thrown in there. First, we do need more capacity across the Bay urgently, and that is really independent of Sunday's crash. I sat on the former Governor's task force that examined this issue and the conclusion I came to was that the need for another bridge or tunnel was urgent, and given that it would take 10-15 years to actually complete if we started now, I think we should be getting started.

It would be paid for with tolls, just the way the current facilities are paid for. But, if we had another facility right now, then we would not have had a life lost on Sunday or three others lost in May 2007. In fact,70% of fatal crashes have happened when the two way traffic on a bridge scheme was in place. With more capacity that would not be as necessary.

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Washington, D.C.: What plans are in place to ensure that the Bay Bridge as well as other heavily traveled bridges are safe?

I have always been terrified of the Bay Bridge and feared something like this as well as the other accidents would occur. I hope funds are allotted to make sure this tragedy does not happen again. My thoughts and prayers are with all parties involved.

Lon Anderson: Great Question, DC. You will remember that the Bay Bridge incident is just one of several where the barriers have fialed to restrain big trucks. In 2004, a gas tanker truck went off the overpass of 895 onto I-95 near Baltimore and 4 or 5 people died in the ensuing coflagration. We urged MD State Highways to consider increasing the strength of retaining walls where there is heavy truck traffic so they would restrain not only cars, but also trucks. We lost a life in a similar situation on the Beltway at the I-270 overpass in 2006. It's expensive, but as we get more and more trucks on the road, we need to do all we can to keep them and other motorists safe.

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Maryland: In The Post article the driver of the Camero admits to falling asleep at the wheel. Are the results from the investigation in? Did she cause the crash? What are the legal ramifications?

Just proves the case that sleepy drivers are a menace just like DWI!

Lon Anderson: Hey Maryland--great point. I can't comment on the legalities, but reports are that she fell asleep. this shoudl be an urgent reminder that Drowsy driving is a major problem. We urge everyone to be well rested before starting a trip and to heed their bio-clocks. If you normally sleep at 4 am, then you should not be driving then. And if you begin to feel sleepy, adress it immediately--it's a real threat to your safety. Thanks for the question!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do we have any structural damage to worry about?

Lon Anderson: Hey Silver Spring--I'm no expert, but the experts say no there is no structural damage we need to worry about, and I think we can trust them on that.

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Alexandria and Easton: I own a second home on the eastern shore, in Easton Md. I agree that the capacity of the bridge is strained beyond capacity -- I see it twice a weekend, every weekend. What can be done to ease that -- build another bridge? Too expensive. Add ferries? Too slow and inconvenient. Restrict the number of vehicles? Would never fly..???

Lon Anderson: Hello A & E--Another structure is really the only answer and it could be a bridge or a tunnel. As you note the need is already urgent, but given a decade to get it done, think how urgent the need will be 10 years from now. Given that the Eastern Shore is a major economic engine for Maryland, restricting traffic there seems like a poor answer that woule eventually strangle the economy there. If that's not an answer for Tyson's, it's probably not a good one for the shore!

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Arlington, Va.: A couple questions, if you don't mind.

First, what will it take for Americans to be honest about the state of our infrastructure? Year after year the civil engineers warn us that our infrastructure is a ticking time bomb, and we ignore them. If Minneapolis wasn't a wake-up call, what would be?

Second, this two-way-on-one-span traffic business for bridges and tunnels is a nightmare (I'm not scared of the Bay Bridge, but I'm white-knuckled when it's two-way, one-span). Would stopping all traffic in one direction for alternating half-hour periods really be so much worse? (And what the heck were they thinking doing this on a weekend night, anyway?)

Okay, that's three questions. Thanks for listening.

Lon Anderson: Boy Arlington, talk about three good tough ones! I agree with you and everyone I've talked to agrees that you are really white-knuckling it when you are driving on the bridge with oncomeing traffic next to you. Given the very finite capacity (5 lanes) across the Bay currently, some of this mixing of the flows on the same bridge is probably necessary, but I agree, it would be safer for all if it could be minimized. I also think it ought to be possible to utilize some kind of barrier system to separate the traffic flows--perhaps like the one used by DC on the Roosevelt Bridge, for example.

Thanks for the great questions!

As for the Infratruture generally, you are right on. a former trasnprotion commioner for New Jersey said in a speech that for years we ahve been getting our trasnportation on the cheap and that the last time we really paid adequatel;y for it, Eisenhower was president and he was paying for the interstate system. We have sdeferred maintenance everywhere--not jusst on highways but on mass transit too. Metro has estimated that they need $100 million more a year to properly maintain the system. the Minneapolis bridge colloapes should have been a wake-up call, but witness what just happened in VA. The special session failed to provide transportation an extra dime.

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Repercussions: I know that it is premature, but do we know anything about the driver who lost his life? His family? I was wondering if his family would be pursuing a civil case against the woman who fell asleep at the wheel and killed this man. I know that we don't know for sure what happened, but clearly she lost control of her car and caused a death. Even if there are no criminal charges, his family would easily have a civil case against her.

Lon Anderson: Hey Repercussions--I 'm not going to specualte about suits, but your focus is excellent. We have a person, a truck driver, who was just doing his job and was killed, and the crash did not ahve to happen or be that severe. Had there been barrier separations of the traffic flows...had the Jersey wall kept the truck on the bridge...had the car driver decided not to start a trip after a night of partying...Any or all of those things might have saved this driver's life. We sghould not forget the personal tragedy here.

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Oakton, Va.: We were stuck in the back-up going west on Sunday. My question is what can be done to get the Maryland State Police and the Bridge authority police to work harder on traffic management (getting people to keep up the pace on the bridge and assisting in helping lanes to merge von the approach to the bridge)? We noticed that there were no police out directing traffic. Once you got onto the bridge going west, the flow was pretty smooth, save for the rubber-neckers at the eastern end of the bridge who slowed to a crawl trying to see the trailer in the water. In fact, we saw one guy who stopped his truck in the outer westbound lane and got out to take a picture with his cell phone. NO POLICE WERE THERE TO TRY AND PUSH TRAFFIC ALONG. This was a major shortcoming on the part of the authorities.

Lon Anderson: Oakton--What perspicacity! Nobody does major back-up management very well, and we need to learn. I have been caught in a similar back-up on I-95 headed to Richmond. No information, no assistance, just hours of sitting in place. In today's information age, we can surely do better. I'm with you!

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D.C.: Second structure is WAY overdue. I've been in the area eight years and every summer it's terrible.

Similarly, imagine what would happen if this occured on the northern beltway. We need additional infrastructure in MANY places/chokepoints.

How about a car-rail tunnel to the Eastern Shore? MARC could runs trains to Ocean City and we could reduce traffic by a third.

Lon Anderson: Hey DC--that's creative, and maybe you are on to something. Perhaps a car-rail tunnel should be considered. We need to urge Governor O'Malley to re-open the study of adding capacity across the bay--where and what form should be open questions.

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Falls Church, Va.: L.A: "the Minneapolis bridge collapse should have been a wake-up call"

Shame on you, Lon. The Minneapolis bridge collapse was definitively found to have been caused by a design flaw in its construction. Maintenance, deferred or otherwise, had absolutely nothing to do with that tragedy.

Lon Anderson: Falls Church--thanks for the comment, but I think we are both right. You're right that it was a design problem, but the weaknesses in the rivets could have been found with thorough and regular maintenance. We have a similar bridge on the Capital Beltway in MD over the Northwest Branch, and MD SHA has undertaken thorough inspections and maintenance and assures it's safe!

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Washington: We saw a sign when leaving O.C. on sunday at 10:30 saying bridge accident, expect traffic.

We stopped for lunch at St. Michaels to kill time and approached the outlet malls around 1:30

If the accident occurred at 4 in the morning, why was the bridge still having issues that much later?

Traffic control could have been set up and monitored to prevent all of this no?

Lon Anderson: Washington--we've heard so many comments like yours. There really was a lack of information for drivers who could have altered their routes, but found out too late to do so. Clearly we can do better. And the bridge did not open until late yesterday afternoon--just before the 4 pm newscasts began, in fact.

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Falls Church, Va.: Speaking of semis going over jersey walls, I fear that one day, a semi will go over the jersey wall at the mixing bowl which has all sorts of elevated spans going over 95. It's crazy to think that no one ever considered that those spans could ice up during a snow/ice storm nomatter how much salt/sand you lay down.

Lon Anderson: Falls Church--Now there is a very scary thought, and I'm betting the retaining walls on those flyover are built to the same specs as those in MD, to hold cars, not trucks! And we have already had terrible icing on those flyovers, despite promises that there would be state of the art de-icing system employed (so stated when plans were first publicly presented.) Thankfully, no trucks went over. But what a frightening thought!

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Rockville, Md.:"Had there been barrier separations of the traffic flows...had the jersey wall kept the truck on the bridge...had the car driver decided not to start a trip after a night of partying...Any or all of those things might have saved this driver's life"

Please keep focused on the one thing that caused this man to lose his life -- the other driver falling asleep.

Talking about "had a barrier been there" or "had the jersey wall be stronger" will lead the family of the truck driver to sue Maryland, the federal government, the concrete company, the bridge authority, etc. The only one to blame is the woman driving the other car. If anybody should be sued, it is her and her alone.

Lon Anderson: Hey Rockville--not to get picky, but one of my string was exactly on--had the driver not started a trip after a night of partying... I agree we need to focus on drowsy driving, but the other things, would likely have also saved the life, as well.

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Columbia, Md.: Instead of another car bridge/tunnel -- has there ever been any talk of a public transit solution? High-speed rail to the shore from D.C./Baltimore/Annapolis? Could MARC train capacity that sits idle on weekends -- when commuter rail is closed -- be put to use for rail traffic to the shore and back if a track were built?

Lon Anderson: Hey Columbia--I'm Getting several questions like yours about rail and mass transit, and I completely agree that this option should be fully expolored as part of any study about solving the capacity issue across the Bay--esspecialoly for those going to OC, which has an excellent, and inexpensive bus service, once you're there. thanks the suggestions!

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Bethesda, Md.: Aside from the young woman falling asleep at the wheel (which, if it turns out to be the cause of the crash, should result in criminal prosecution), it seems to me the culprit here was the two-way traffic. I am petrified every time I have to travel east against two lanes of oncoming traffic on the normally westbound span. What was so urgent that the entire westbound span had to be closed to create the two-way situation on the eastbound span when the accident occurred? And in the future, can't two way traffic be avoided entirely if construction is done at carefully planned (i.e. non-peak)times?

Lon Anderson: Hi Bethesda--it was construction and maintenance on the other bridge that caused it's closere resulting in the two way traffic on the one bridge. With just 5 lanes total across the Bay, they have to close lanes/bridges to do this work, and middle of the night is when traffic is the lightest and therefore is least distrupted, but I'm with you. Driving on the narrow bridge with no shoulders with traffic coming at you--it's down right scary, and certainly more dangerous.

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Burke Va. and Ocean City, Md.: The accident was clearly the fault of the 19-year-old falling asleep. It was not the fault of the Bay Bridge or the Maryland Transportation Planning Board, etc. The 19-year-old should have used better judgment and not have driven back across the Bay Bridge after partying all night at her mother's wedding.

Lon Anderson: Burke & OC--Completely agree that it appears to have been the fault of the driver falling asleep, but the event was exascerbated by having two way traffic and by the failure of the restraining walls to keep the truck on the bridge. But your point is excellent--so many of our 43,00 highwway fataltities could be avoided if drivers made better decisions--not to speed, not drive drowsy, not to drive drunk, etc. We all need to take responsibility for our driving. thanks!

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Lon Anderson: Hey all--this has been great as always, and I want to thank all participants for some outstanding comments and suggestions. Please drive safely and have a great summer, and thanks for taking the time to join in this discussion.

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