According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Keystone State is home to more “structurally deficient” bridges than any other state. The state owns 25,000 bridges, so it may be hard to keep up. Still, PennDOT reports that, on average, these bridges are 50 years old or older.
That means we have a good number of bridges that were designed and constructed to meet the needs of the 1940s and ’50s, to accommodate traffic patterns and vehicles that barely resemble anything we have now. Please note, though, that the “structurally deficient” rating does not mean the bridge is on the verge of collapse. It does mean that it needs repairs and updating.
Some of the construction projects will add lanes of traffic to the bridge and the highway, if any, below. PennDOT does not say that any scheduled work will raise bridge decks to accommodate higher vehicles, but an accident in Texas may give agency leaders a push in that direction.
The accident involved a tractor trailer hauling a large load and a highway overpass. Multiple signs posted on the stretch of road leading up to the overpass warn motorists that the bridge clearance is 13 feet, 6 inches. The truck driver either failed to notice the signs or chose to ignore them: His load was a full foot higher than the clearance limit.
The load struck the bridge deck and dislodged two beams. The beams fell across several lanes of traffic, crushing a pickup truck and killing the driver. In all, three tractor trailers and two pickup trucks were involved in the crash. In addition to the fatality, three people suffered non-life-threatening injuries. It took more than 12 hours to clear the wreckage.
The overpass was under construction, but there will be no change to the underpass height. The truck driver was not authorized to be hauling an over-sized load. Had transportation officials known about the height difference, they would likely have rerouted the trucker to a safer route.
The circumstances of this accident may seem unusual, with all of the dangerous elements coming together at that exact moment. Consider, though, how many aging, if not elderly bridges there are in Pennsylvania and how many 18-wheelers travel Interstate 95 and the turnpike. Consider the reputation, earned or erroneous, of the trucking industry when it comes to safety measures. Just how rare is this type of crash?
KWTX, “Overpass Involved in Deadly I35 Crash Hit Twice Before,” March 28, 2015
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, “Bridge Information”