Accident aftermath

Our view : Public must keep perspective in Bay Bridge truck crash

August 13, 2008

Sunday's fatal crash at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge likely struck a sensitive chord with a lot of motorists, especially those already nervous about such a lengthy water crossing. A tractor-trailer plunges over a concrete barrier and lands in the bay. The driver is killed. Vacation traffic comes to a standstill.

This wasn't just a fatal accident; it was a public spectacle. No vehicle had ever fallen off either of the dual spans. Traffic backups continued through Monday afternoon - as motorists slowed to see the aftermath.

But before anyone jumps to the conclusion that the Bay Bridge is unsafe or that a third span must be built, a reality check is in order. As well-traveled thoroughfares go, the 4.3-mile bridge has a pretty good accident record, and the circumstances of this particular crash (at least what is known so far) don't suggest it has become extremely dangerous.

According to police and eyewitness accounts, the driver of a sports car who may have fallen asleep crossed the center line in two-way traffic around 4 a.m. on the older two-lane span. The truck driver swerved, braked hard and jackknifed.

Allowing two-way traffic on a two-lane bridge is hardly ideal, but it's been a common practice for years so crews can perform needed bridge maintenance - and to add capacity at peak travel. times.

Perhaps there are steps the Maryland Transportation Authority can take to make two-way traffic safer, such as rumble strips or a center barrier. If investigators determine speed was a factor in the crash, greater enforcement efforts may be in order.

But it's absurd to suggest the only proper remedy is to build another bridge. That would be a multibillion-dollar undertaking that would summon huge opposition from local communities and environmental groups - and it simply isn't justified.

If the public wants shorter waits at the Bay Bridge, step one should be to remove the booths and collect all tolls electronically and at faster speeds. High-speed ferries or public transit alternatives are other options .

What happened Sunday was tragic. But no amount of concrete and steel is going to make drivers more alert. In a time of lean government budgets, safety improvements ought to be made where they are needed most - and that isn't necessarily at the Bay Bridge.

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