WASHINGTON, D. C. ( Monday, July 22, 2013) – AAA Mid-Atlantic is calling on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the adequacy and the safety of the bridge parapets on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in the aftermath of a frightful collision that sent a vehicle and its driver hurtling over the railings into the watery bay 40 feet below. In a letter to NTSB Chairperson Deborah Hersman, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic stated, “We believe this crash merits investigation by the NTSB, and call upon your agency to undertake an investigation.”
The incident, which reportedly took place a quarter mile into the eastbound span of the bridge this past Friday night, has shaken the confidence of the motoring public in the safety of the railings on the iconic span, observes AAA Mid-Atlantic. In the letter (see attachment) to the chief of the independent federal agency, the auto club representative wrote, “there would appear to be a failure of the restraint system on the Bay Bridge.”
“This clearly raises questions about whether there was a failure of the specific restraint system used on the bridge, and whether it met federal specifications, or whether the federal specifications for bridge barriers are inadequate to restrain a vehicle in this type of crash,” wrote Mahlon G. (Lon) Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s managing director of Public and Government Affairs. “If so, does it warrant an examination of the adequacy of those federal specifications?”
Installed in 1986, the “Jersey barrier” railings on the Bay Bridge were designed so that “if a vehicle ran into it at a small angle, it would deflect the vehicle back into the bridge-way with minimal damage,” bridge engineers say. The sheer force and physics of a collision on the bridge this past Friday hurled a vehicle atop the concrete Jersey wall before it toppled with its driver into the Chesapeake Bay.
“We think it’s critical that your agency investigate this so that the huge number of motorists [that use the bridge] and their passengers can be assured that when they use this critical link with the Eastern Shore that the Bridge is safe and that the restraint systems on the two spans of this bridge are working properly and will keep them on the bridge in the event of a crash,” Anderson wrote.
According to its mission and legislative mandate, the NTSB determines the probable cause of each accident it investigates and “issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.”For this reason, Anderson urged: “No motorist using this facility should have to worry about going off the bridge in the event of an incident. We think your agency’s investigation of this crash would provide that assurance or lead to the changes necessary to be able to give motorist this assurance.”
The latest crash took place after a tractor-trailer rig reportedly rear-ended a vehicle on the eastbound span as thosuands of motorists were heading to the beach for the weekend. Miraculously, the 22-year-old driver survived her frightful plunge over the bridge.
But concerns about the design standards of the Jersey barriers loom large in the minds of the motoring public, the auto club notes. This is not the first time such questions have risen to the fore. That was the case on Aug. 10, 2008, when the driver of a tractor-tractor drowned after he crashed through the bridge’s railings, and then plummeted to his death in the bay. The driver of the big rig had swerved to avoid hitting a car.
At that time, AAA Mid-Atlantic was highly critical of bridge safety and called upon state officials to inspect the bridge and to ensure the engineering and the structural integrity of the parapets along the 4.3 mile-long span.
Shortly after that deadly crash, in-depth testing of the eastbound span’s concrete parapet (barrier) found evidence of corrosion of reinforcing steel bolts encased in the concrete barrier, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) announced. Subsequently, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley called for the appointment of a panel of experts to investigate the safety records and inspection standards of Maryland’s bridges and tunnels.
The seven-member panel of experts issued its report a year later on June 1, 2009. The panel issued 18 recommendations and 14 findings including: the railing knocked off the bridge in the fatal 2008 tractor-trailer crash “would not meet today’s design standards.”
But the panel also stated: “Design standards are routinely changed, however, in many cases annually. It is neither practical nor recommended to retrofit bridges immediately to meet each such change. Rather, changes to meet later design standards are typically made to the extent possible as major bridge rehabilitation occurs.”
Following the latest incident, Anderson noted that Maryland transportation authorities have consistently told the auto club that barriers on Maryland’s bridges meet federal specifications that require them to restrain cars that hit them, but not big trucks.” This was a car that hit the barriers and it still ended up in the water, he noted.
Congress has charged the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) with the authority to investigate “every civil aviation in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation-railroad, highway, marine and pipeline.”
Spanning 4.3 miles from end to end, the original span of the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge (US 50/301) was the world’s longest continuous over-water steel structure when the two lane eastbound span opened in 1952. Its parallel structure boasts three lanes for westbound travelers and it opened two decades later in 1973.