Bridges need tougher policing For safe bridges, tougher rules


August 18, 2008|By MIKE DRESSER

The Maryland Transportation Authority owns and operates seven toll facilities on behalf of the people of the state. All seven are all critical to Maryland's prosperity and mobility, but the crown jewel is the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge - the Bay Bridge.

Eight days ago, for the first time in the bridge's 56-year history, a vehicle broke through the walls of one of its spans and plunged into the water. The driver of the tractor-trailer, John Robert Short, died. Tens of thousands of Marylanders ended up stuck in traffic for hours on a busy Sunday.

Some have chosen to view the crash as nothing more than a freak accident. But it also could be seen as a byproduct of the authority's failure to protect its most critical assets from the most dire threat facing them.

No, not terrorists. Bad driving.

For all the fantasizing about al-Qaida sabotaging bridges and tunnels, nobody is more likely to damage this critical infrastructure than the people who use it - especially when they are driving 40-ton tractor-trailers.

The crash a week ago Sunday was certainly chilling - producing photos that played into the deepest primal fears of bridge users - but it was far from a worst-case scenario. A breach of the barriers higher on the bridge, involving multiple tractor-trailers, a cargo of fuel and even higher speeds, could have been even more horrific.

We've been lucky that such a crash hasn't occurred before. It's certainly fair to ask whether the authority chairman and executive secretary and board of directors are doing all they can to prevent it.

For starters, they have not gone to the General Assembly to seek authority to strictly enforce traffic laws in these vulnerable places using all available technologies. Neither have they tried to make a case that these roadways demand a higher level of driver behavior than we see on other roads.

It's not a hard case to make. Consider the Bay Bridge. It's the economic lifeline of the state, but its two spans have distracting scenic views, curving roadways and no shoulders. An aged facility, it needs constant maintenance and regular major upgrades that require lane closings and sometimes two-way operations. When it is closed because of a serious crash, the consequences are far greater than the shutdown of, say, Interstate 95, which has parallel highways to relieve backups.

Nevertheless, drivers on the bridge routinely treat it as just another stretch of the U.S. 50 Speedway - blowing off the 50 mph speed limit as some arbitrary dictate of the Nanny State. They tailgate, they swerve from lane to lane and speed as flagrantly as they would anywhere else.

And they almost always get away with it because the bridge is an enforcement nightmare. Where do you set up radar in the middle of the eastbound span? How do you pull someone over without disrupting the traffic that follows? The Maryland Transportation Authority Police do what they can, but it's a real challenge.

That's why there is nowhere in the state where the case is stronger for vigorous use of video technology to enforce the law. Not just to issue automated speeding tickets but also to identify other offenders who can be pulled over once they're off the bridge. I'd like to see a defendant in District Court try to explain away video evidence of tailgating.

There's also a strong argument that traffic violations on the authority's bridges and tunnels deserve tougher sanctions. If fines are doubled in work zones, why not triple them on the Bay Bridge and other toll facilities? (The Harbor Tunnel, Fort McHenry Tunnel, Key Bridge, the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna and the U.S. 301 bridge over the Potomac. I'd exempt the toll section of Interstate 95 because it doesn't raise the same issues.)

It wouldn't take long before folks absorbed the message that Maryland toll bridges and tunnels are someplace where you drive as if your mom were in the car.

Such a message - if sent a few years ago - might have saved the life of that truck driver last week. He couldn't help it that the driver of a Chevrolet Camaro swerved into his lane, but bridge officials estimate he was going 55 mph when he hit the barriers.

Had he been going 40 mph, the speed limit when the bridge is in two-way operations, there's no guarantee the barriers would have kept his vehicle on the bridge. But according to C.C. Fu, director of the University of Maryland's Bridge Engineering Software and Technology Center, the odds of staying topside would have been much better.

So it's up to you, authority Chairman John D. Porcari and Executive Secretary Ronald Freeland, to take what steps you can to "protect our house." And it's up to board members - the Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., Isaac H. Marks Sr., Michael J. Whitson, Walter E. Woodford Jr., Peter J. Basso, Mary B. Halsey; Louise P. Hoblitzell and Richard C. Mike Lewin - to insist they do.

You folks need to take a serious look at two-way operations. Maybe there's no way to avoid them when you have maintenance and construction, but can they be justified when congestion relief is the only purpose? And why not tell people the truth: that two-way traffic is a risky business that demands that they put down their cell phones and pay attention. That's a tune that harmonizes better with a 40 mph speed limit.

When you've made the changes you can make on your own, it'll be time to go to the legislature for the changes only it can make.

If you fight the good fight and lawmakers turn you down, the Assembly can take the blame for future catastrophes. Until then, the monkey's on your backs.


Find Mike Dresser's column archive at dresser

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.