Truck height checks to start

Fatal bridge accident spurs state program at weigh stations

August 18, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Spurred by the fatal collapse of a pedestrian footbridge on the Beltway in June, state highway officials for the first time will begin routinely checking truck heights at Maryland's highway weigh stations.

Officials said yesterday they plan to install electronic devices that would provide instant measurement of truck heights at the weigh stations, but that no date has been set for the installation.

"I want to measure the height on every truck," said Parker F. Williams, head of the State Highway Administration. "We're going to go ahead and do it."

The footbridge collapse June 8 near Arbutus, which closed the Beltway for 12 hours, killed one person and injured three others. A truck with a load that was nearly 3 feet too tall smashed into the concrete structure, sending it onto rush-hour traffic.

Besides getting trucks that are too tall off the road before they damage bridges and other overhead structures, electronic checks also would provide information on how prevalent the problem is on Maryland's roads.

"This is not just a Maryland problem," Williams said. "But we don't have a good national database to determine frequency."

Since the accident, highway officials have reviewed recent inspection reports for the 2,466 bridges maintained by the state. A total of 113 showed evidence of being hit or nicked by too-tall vehicles.

Williams said his agency also determined that a truck struck some kind of overhead structure in 11 accidents last year. Five of those involved trucks hauling hydraulic equipment, like the excavator improperly loaded on Paul McIntosh's truck that struck the Arbutus footbridge.

"That does not look alarming," Williams said of the five accidents. "But the problem is, when this occurs, it creates mayhem on the Beltway."

Williams said he envisions an electronic monitor similar to one in use at the Harbor Tunnel -- an electronic beam of light set at 13 feet, 6 inches, the federal maximum standard for trucks.

If a truck breaks the electronic beam, it is pulled off the road and checked by the harbor police, said Maj. Norman W. Boskind of Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

"The overhead detection system does work well," he said.

In the first six months of last year, 245 trucks approaching the tunnel exceeded the federal limit and were diverted, he said. It's not a huge percentage of the tunnel's heavy traffic, which runs close to 2 million vehicles a month, Boskind said.

But catching even such a small number is important, he said, because the tunnel has only 13 feet, 8 inches of clearance -- leaving little margin for error. Boskind said the electronic monitoring equipment at the Harbor Tunnel was built by the agency's maintenance shop. He could not provide a cost estimate.

The busiest truck weigh stations will likely get the monitors first, Williams said.

"This is a work in progress with the state police," he said.

State troopers staff the weigh stations, scattered across Maryland from the Eastern Shore to the state's western wedge.

Pete Piringer, a state police spokesman, said troopers do some height inspections, but not routinely.

"They don't do a full inspection on every truck," Piringer said. Instead, trucks going into the weigh station might be weighed and sent on -- or they might be chosen at random for a full "level one" inspection, which includes height, width, weight and other factors.

"We do about 100,000 inspections a year," Piringer said. About 10 percent of those trucks -- 10,000 each year -- are taken off the road for violations, he said.

Troopers sometimes close a weigh station and do roving patrols. If a truck looks too tall, he said, they will pull it over and measure it.

A spokesman for the trucking industry said yesterday that truckers would welcome electronic devices to measure load heights.

"Nobody should be driving over height," said Walter Thompson, who heads the Maryland Motor Truck Association in Baltimore. Thompson said most big trucks are built to federal height specifications.

Thompson and state officials said the problems typically arise with semiflexible loads such as car carriers and flatbeds loaded with hydraulic equipment, like the truck that smashed into the Beltway footbridge.

In general, industry and state officials said, Maryland's safety rate for trucks is better than the national average. In 1997, Williams said, 611 fatalities occurred on Maryland's roads, and 84 involved trucks.

Statistically, he said, that worked out to about 1.3 fatalities for every 100 million miles traveled -- well below the national rate of 1.7 fatalities.

Last year, the number of truck fatalities declined to 67.

Yesterday, state police said they are working on traffic charges stemming from the footbridge collapse. No criminal charges will be filed against McIntosh, the truck driver, prosecutors said this week.

Pub Date: 8/18/99

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