Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bridge inspection a tight squeeze for workers, traffic

By Danielle Holstein

Despite being exceptionally clumsy and at times rather unlucky, I’d never found myself stuck on the side of a freeway before. As part of my job, I watch stranded vehicles through our traffic cameras and I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be exposed to the elements on one of our busy corridors. On Tuesday, April 12, I found out.

To better understand the experience of a highway crew, I spent some time with a bridge inspection crew working over the Nooksack River on I-5 in Ferndale. Like many of us, before coming to WSDOT I’d seldom given thought to the crews working behind the barrels, so I didn’t know what to expect.

It’s loud!
Arriving on site, the first thing I noticed was persistent, roaring noise. With each passing vehicle, I heard a loud rumble. On the bridge, an inspector mentioned that most crews religiously carry a pair of ear plugs because the relentless noise of speeding cars can be damaging over time. Stationary WSDOT vehicles also add to the blare; one truck can roar over 130 decibels, which is louder than a rock concert!

It’s a tight fit to keep traffic moving across a bridge while keeping our bridge inspection crews safe.

It’s cramped!
Even though the right lane was blocked off with traffic cones, the vehicles speeding by felt very close.  Given this bridge’s structure, an Under Bridge Inspection Truck (UBIT) operation is already remarkably tricky. This special truck’s long arm extends down the side and under the bridge so crews can check the structure’s integrity from below. The truck’s operator must carefully weave the arm in and out of the bridge’s beams. It’s not easy to do this with only one lane of space. Traffic persistently plowed by and crews were forced to tiptoe between the truck and the edge.

And you feel the traffic, too
I felt a little Skywalker-esque as I used the Force to predict traffic flow onto the bridge. Even before I could see or hear vehicles, I felt them barreling near us. A bridge inspection offers some unique difficulties, because safety standards require crews to stay a distance away from the bridge’s edge unless they’re harnessed in. When speeding traffic zips by with such strength, it feels uneasy to move in either direction, even behind large traffic barrels.

We need a safe work zone for bridge inspection to allow crews to get under the bridge to take a look.

We need your help
I consider myself a highway veteran, but experiencing I-5 from the outside was a different ball game. Our crews are potentially in harm’s way on a regular basis ensuring our bridges and roadways are safe for the public. This is Work Zone Awareness week and here’s some tips on how you can help our workers get home safely:
  • Leave plenty of space behind the driver in front of you. Abrupt stops and slowdowns near work zones lead to a lot of rear end collisions that endanger both drivers and nearby crews.
  • Give ‘em a brake! Slowing down near a work zone creates a much safer environment for our crews. It gives drivers more time to react and can substantially lessen damage if a collision occurs.
  • Merge on over. If there’s space, consider merging into a far lane as you move through a work zone. This gives crews a safety buffer.
  • Pay attention! Distracted driving is even more dangerous in a work zone. Leave your phone in the backseat and keep a careful eye on the road ahead.
Thanks for helping us keep the roads safe!