Friday, April 17, 2015

The reality of bridge strikes

 By Barbara LaBoe

We know how vital our bridges are to motorists in our state.

Even a short bridge closure can snarl daily commutes, disrupt critical freight deliveries and overwhelm alternate routes. That’s why we keep a close eye on our bridges and overpasses, including regular inspections and preventative maintenance projects.

But we’re also concerned about bridge strikes, particularly on some of our older, lower-clearance structures.

Minor bridge strikes are not uncommon, but we’re particularly concerned about a recent spate of serious damage to our bridges.  Those major strikes, and related closures, spell trouble for both drivers and taxpayers.

Since 2008, we’ve documented 127 strikes on 78 bridges. Fifteen of those incidents were serious enough to close or restrict the bridge, including the 2013 strike that knocked the Skagit River Bridge into the river and cost $17 million to repair.

Two recent serious bridge strikes – one on the Interstate 90 overpass in Issaquah in March and another on the State Route 410 White River Bridge earlier this month -- led Gov. Inslee to proclaim a state of emergency Thursday, April 16. Combined, the repairs are estimated at $3 million.

Crews make temporary repairs on the State Route 410 White River Bridge
earlier this month after an over height vehicle struck and damaged the bridge.
Another 84 bridge strikes were significant enough to require emergency bridge inspections and priority repairs. The remaining 28 were minor strikes, but even those can build into larger problems over time.

Part of the problem is the changing times.

Bridges and overpasses – including some early parts of our freeways – were built to lower standards. In the 1950s, the standard clearance level was 14-foot, 6-inches. Today it’s two feet higher. In the meantime, trucks and their cargos have grown bigger and heavier, posing a challenge to older bridges and structures.

By state law, it remains the driver’s responsibility to check his or her route before setting out. To help, we’ve developed an online Bridge Vertical Clearance Trip Planner that lets drivers map out their routes to spot potential trouble spots. It debuted earlier this year and was developed with the help of the Washington Trucking Association.

The Bridge Vertical Clearance Trip Planner, which debuted in January,
helps truck drivers make better, safer decisions about routes
and which bridges they should avoid.

The tool maps out a route and highlights state highway bridges with clearances that are too low or that might require a specific lane for safe clearance.

We’ve also reviewed signs on all bridges 15 feet 3 inches tall and lower, rewritten our permit regulations for clarity and launched a comprehensive review and re-measurement of all bridges with clearances of 16 feet 6 inches and lower.

We hope these steps – and reminding drivers about the dangers and responsibilities that come with over height loads – help truck drivers make better, safer decisions. That not only protects taxpayers’ investment in our roadways, it also safeguards all motorists and helps to keep traffic moving throughout the state.


Aardvark said...

As far as I'm concerned, bridges shouldn't be allowed to strike. They get paid plenty...

Anonymous said...

Why not put a simple cheap structure, 150-200 yards from the bridge approach, that would be struck before the vehicle strikes the bridge. This would signal the driver to stop. This structure would obviously mimic the dimension of the exposed bridge structures that are most often struck. The same concept could be applied to overpass strikes.

WSDOT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WSDOT said...

We don’t use strike poles or other items attached or installed near bridges and overpasses because we don’t want the debris to fall into adjacent traffic after a strike. By law, it is the driver’s responsibility to plan out their trip ahead of time and ensure they can safety pass under all structures. Help in doing this is available through our online Bridge Vertical Clearance Trip Planner at

Anonymous said...

Astonishing - you'd rather have debris from an ACTUAL bridge strike fall into traffic and risk the bridge integrity? Make liability for subsequent damage from striking a pre-clearance structure the same as hitting the bridge. The Trip Planner is great, but the people responsible enough to use the planner and pay attention to clearances are generally not the ones you need to worry about.

WSDOT said...

We take safety very seriously at WSDOT and work to ensure the safety of all drivers on the road. In addition to state law that requires truck drivers to assure their route is safe before heading out, over height drivers are also required to have a front pilot car with a height pole attached to it. The height pole can strike a bridge or overpass – without sending potential debris into adjacent lanes – and provide an early warning for the truck driver to stop before striking the bridge. The concern with adding another structure before a bridge is the danger to other drivers if that structure suddenly fell into their lane after being struck. For more information, you may wish to visit our commercial vehicle services page.

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