The concrete pedestrian bridge in the Washington Park Arboretum claims another victim


Spanning the main road through the Washington Park Arboretum is a pedestrian bridge, formally known as the Arboretum Sewer Trestle (you don't need me to explain why). The bridge is marked Clearance: 9'0". There are warnings posted far in advance. There is even a laser sensor above the road which triggers flashing yellow warning lights if an over-height vehicle approaches.

Despite all these precautions and warnings, people still crash into the bridge with alarming frequency, at least according to one of my colleagues who drives under that bridge every day. (If you ask the Department of Transportation—as my colleague did—how often vehicles strike the bridge, you'll get a number far, far below the actual number. Probably because most of the incidents go unreported.) The evidence by the side of the road suggests that the accidents are usually caused by somebody who forgot that he's pulling a U-Haul behind him.

Or maybe it was a bus carrying a high school softball team.

The driver of the bus was blindly following the instructions of his GPS navigation system and never saw the flashing lights or the clearance sign. He figured the route must have been good, because he set the GPS to bus mode. You can read the article to find out why that didn't work.

Remember folks, it's great that you have a computer to give you directions, but it's still your responsibility to drive the vehicle.

Bonus chatter: My bridge-obsessed colleague also introduced me to the Om Nom Nom Nom meme by forwarding a picture of the crash site with a pair of googly eyes drawn on the bridge overpass. Here's an interview with the source of the phrase om nom nom nom.

Oh, and my bridge-obsessed colleague also wishes somebody would install a web-cam pointed at the bridge: When the laser detects an imminent collision, it starts recording!

Comments (35)
  1. Argh!  Don’t you HATE it when you can’t find an article?  Many months ago, I read an article about local european goverments posting special signs to warn GPS-using drivers that they were being led somewhere bad.

    For the life of me, I can’t find the article I want.  This is close enough, though:

    http://www.sciuridae.co.uk/sat_nav_map_accuracy.htm

    This might be even better:

    http://www.techradar.com/news/portable-devices/satnav/the-uks-top-satnav-disasters-208089

    I thought we might need something like that around Colorado.  However, it appears the major map companies have finally stopped trying to route tourist rental calls over the 13,185 ft. Mosquito Pass 4-wheel-drive road between Leadville and Fairplay (South Park!).

  2. mike says:

    At what point can a GPS be held liable for causing an accident?

  3. Erzengel says:

    Which is why my GPS says as soon as you start it up, "Please disregard unsafe or illegal directions."

    But of course, that takes /thinking/, which people aren’t used to doing, apparently.

    There has to be a better way than blinking hazard lights. I just can’t think of any.

    Are these yellow lights like the ones for "stop light ahead"? If so, I don’t think that I would notice them either because I’d just expect them to mean "Oh, there’s a stop light."

  4. Gabe says:

    Whenever I see signs indicating low bridges, I ignore them because my car always fits. Similarly, this bus driver probably always encounters bridges that are tall enough so he is not used to paying attention to bridge height warnings to see if his bus will fit under the bridge.

  5. Eric Lippert says:

    I have often wondered why DOT chose to go with easily ignored and likely expensive laser-based flashing light system rather than, say, a horizontal metal pole suspended nine feet in the air. Smack into the pole and do minor damage, rather than smack into the concrete bridge and potentially kill a softball team.

    I am astonished that the injuries were not more serious.

    Then again, there really is no system that is not susceptible to utter incompetance.  Many years ago just a block from my summer cottage a tour bus driver drove his bus into freakin’ LAKE HURON. He took a wrong turn and somehow thinking he was still on highway 21 ignored numerous "the road is about to end" and "slow down" signs.  Right into the lake.

  6. @Eric. Heathrow Airport has the metal pole on the extra entrance they stuck in on what is really a bike lane.  I once went past where a van had its entire roof peeled back like an opened tin can. The pole stopped the tunnel being jammed, but the van didnt come out well.

  7. Swa says:

    Simple fix – use solid RED lights instead of flashing yellow lights. EVERYONE knows what a red light means.

    Then once the driver has stopped an wonders what’s going on, they will see a sign under the red light saying "If this light is red, your vehicle is too tall, turn around".

  8. SM says:

    @Gabe: It’s excusable for someone who normally drives nothing more than a car, but not so much for a Class B- or Class A-licensed driver. Part of driving a commercial vehicle is to know your own vehicle height and to be aware of bridge heights.  Also to read every road sign, and pay attention much more so than your average car driver.

  9. Alex says:

    He was driving a bus with a female sports team and he was distracted … by the GPS. Yeah, sure.

  10. Mike Swaim says:

    In Texas, they either have poles or chains at the tunnel height to give the driver annoying feedback when their truck is too tall.

  11. Nobody says:

    The Hec Ed pedestrian bridge has also peeled the top off a few vehicles.

  12. chrismcb says:

    @mike When the GPS unit starts driving the vehicle.

    From the Artle:

    "Stoplights aren’t in our databases, either, but you’re still expected to stop for stoplights."

  13. Igor Levicki says:

    I said I won’t comment anymore but this is stronger than me.

    1. Build low clearance bridge

    2. Someone crashes into it

    3. Put a warning sign

    4. Someone crashes into it

    5. Put a laser detector and flashing lights

    6. Someone crashes into it

    7. Put a pole or chain at bridge height

    8. Someone still crashes into it

    Wouldn’t it be A LOT EASIER not to build low clearance bridge in the first place?!?

    Oh I forgot, that would require thinking. Never mind then.

    [At the time the bridge was constructed, horses were not 9 feet tall. -Raymond]
  14. Igor Levicki says:

    “At the time the bridge was constructed, horses were not 9 feet tall.”

    We have bridges that old here where I live but I would still have to look hard to find a bridge which cannot accomodate double-decker or a large truck.

    [Apparently where you live, people like to build sewage pipes far higher off the ground than they need to be. You can build sewage pipes only so high before the sewage stops flowing in the direction you desire. -Raymond]
  15. Igor Levicki says:

    "Apparently where you live…"

    Yes, we Serbs are obviously megalomaniacs just like our Soviet friends :)

  16. chrdavis says:

    There really isn’t an elegant solution to the problem with the bridge.

    1. It is an historical landmark – so you can’t tear it down.  I’m not sure if you could if you wanted to.  The thing is indestructible.  I passed under it this morning and aside from the usual scars underneath it, it is as it was before the recent accident.

    2. Putting up more lights/signs probably won’t help because traffic makes a 90 degree turn 20 feet in front of the bridge so the reaction time is still an issue.

    3. Adding a pole/chains before or just after the turn will most likely be fought by the community around the arboretum for aesthetic reasons.  Seattleites love to fight the WSDOT for any reason whatsoever.

    4. Lowering the road under the bridge would not work either.  It is already well below the flood plane.

  17. steveg says:

    Sigh. Didn’t Igor say he wasn’t coming back?

  18. Keith Moore says:

    Close the road, turning it into a dedicated bike/pedestrian path. Problem solved.

  19. Don't Feed the Trolls says:

    @steveg: When you feed trolls they come back for more, even if they don’t want to.

  20. Cooney says:

    [At the time the bridge was constructed, horses were not 9 feet tall. -Raymond]

    They did this in the 50s in New York, but the low bridges were there specifically so that the [bus riding] city-dwelling blacks couldn’t get out to the beaches. I suppose this bridge predates all that sort of behavior (or wasn’t planned by a fanatical racist), but there’s history for you.

    I prefer to think of this bridge as an IQ test – some people fail it.

  21. Erzengel says:

    "I prefer to think of this bridge as an IQ test – some people fail it."

    It would be nice if such a person’s failure was limited to the person with low IQ. Unfortunately, all too often such people inconveniance, injure, or kill others in their flagrant exhibition of restricted intelligence. For example, down here (southern california) there was a minivan that ran a red light, a big rig that (successfully) avoided it, and plowed through a fence and a person cleaning their pool, then into said pool. The person cleaning the pool was killed, the big rig driver injured, and the minivan driver (the only person in this story with obscenely low IQ) got off scott-free. IQ tests should be administered not be administered by automobile (I can think of [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_roulette#Semi-automatic_pistol]better ways[/url] to administer the test), as all too often it’s not the idiot, or the drunk, that gets killed.

    In the case of bridges, imagine what would happen if some of the debris from a truck plowing into the bridge strikes someone. It’s not likely that the truck driver (the person with fantastically low IQ) would be the one injured.

  22. Petr Kadlec says:

    In Prague, there is an underpass shared between trams and cars, with the below road sloped up. Trucks crashing into the trolley under the bridge were a regular occurrence, so that several warning devices (in successive steps) have been installed there (warning signs, yellow-black stripes, even a hanging metal rods ahead of the bridge), all without success (what did the drivers think??). Finally, the last version of the warning sign seems to have some success… this illustration is maybe vivid enough. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Zna%C4%8Dky_u_podjezdu_Zahradn%C3%AD_M%C4%9Bsto.jpg

  23. Igor Levicki says:

    "Close the road, turning it into a dedicated bike/pedestrian path. Problem solved."

    I second that.

    There is also another less drastic option — make it impossible for busses and trucks to reach that part of the road by putting proper traffic signs and poles/chains on the road crossings immediately before and after the bridge effectively cornering it off so that they have to take a turn left or right and go around instead of going forward.

    Making road lower is also an option especially if it is already below the flood level. Just install some sort of a draining system to dump the water away in case of a flood. After all, it is much more dangerous to go through 3′ of concrete instead of through 3′ of water.

  24. SMW says:

    "Simple fix – use solid RED lights instead of flashing yellow lights. EVERYONE knows what a red light means."

    Except those people who are are color-blind such that they don’t see red as, well, red.

  25. bramster says:

    [Apparently where you live, people like to build sewage pipes far higher off the ground than they need to be. You can build sewage pipes only so high before the sewage stops flowing in the direction you desire. -Raymond]

    Well, actually, there are places where the Siphon effect is used.  I’m just happy I’m not the one who has to start the siphon.

    Regarding GPS — way to often the mapping database has interpolated a connection between two roads.  Not nice, if you’re on a fully loaded bicycle, and taken miles out of your way. It happened to me just recently in South Carolina — Both the GPS and a Delorme hard-copy map showed a road — it even had a state route number, entering Santee State Park, near the I95 at Lake Marion.  Well, maybe if I was using an all-terrain vehicle.  Luckily, we still had time to spare to get to our overnight destination.

  26. SM says:

    Truckers sometimes whisper of conspiracies of days gone by when they drive the city streets of Chicago.  You see, Chicago is filled with low bridges, too low for 13’6" trucks to fit.  Oftentimes there is little warning — you don’t know about it until you get there.  The city can be a maze of detours and alternate routes.

    So, what’s the conspiracy?  From where did all of  these low truck-eating bridges come? Well, they’re railway bridges!  Owned by the bygone days’ #1 freight-hauling competition to trucks!

    Probably little truth to that theory, but it’s fun.  

  27. David Walker says:

    @SMW: Red traffic lights (in the US at least) have a fairly precise color spectrum to them, so they can supposedly be seen by people with red-green blindness, which is the most common kind.

    The "green" traffic lights have some blue in them for the same reason.

  28. Arlie says:

    Right next to the University of Louisville, there’s a train bridge that regularly eats semis.  This area of Louisville used to have a lot of heavy industry, and still has a fair amount, so there is still a lot of semi traffic.

    The bridge is marked properly with the clearance, and the guys driving these semis are professionals.  So why does one get eaten, every other month?

    The reason is that the bridge is located at a slight dip in the road.  On either side of the bridge, the road slopes up, several feet higher than directly under the bridge.  So when a semi *first* goes under the bridge, everything is OK.  But of course, semis are rather long, so the cab goes up the next slope while the rear wheels are still on the other slope.  **CRUNCH**

    I’ve waved off two semi drivers.  I think they thought I was crazy, but I’d rather have them think I was crazy, then see yet another destroyed semi.

  29. DriverDude says:

    Around Silicon Valley in the past few years big yellow signs have been added near low bridges stating the height and how far away it is. eg, 13′ 6" clearance at 500 ft. Usually the sign is next to an intersection before the bridge so truckers can take a detour rather than continuing down the street.

    Apparently the DOT figured it is cheaper to put up signs near every bridge rather than repair bridges after a crash. It does require Californians to pay attention to the road though.

  30. Gabe says:

    Cooney: It’s not a good IQ test. A friend was talking about how he had an office with a good view of the highways around Boston that have lots of low bridges. Apparently every Fall would bring a new crop of Harvard and MIT freshmen with rental vans who would ignore the flashing lights and low-bridge signs. I’ve seen those lights flash, and it is easy to assume they don’t apply to you.

    It’s probably a safe bet that if they got into Harvard or MIT, they have a fairly high IQ (or their parents donated some money).

  31. Mike says:

    After clicking on the map link, I get this rather terse, rude error message:

    "Web browser and Live Maps are incompatible"

    Err, 1999 called, they want their crappy web applications back.

    Just yet another example of how Microsoft just doesn’t get it.

    /Mike

  32. "Web browser and Live Maps are incompatible"

    Give it credit, though:  At least it offers Firefox as an option.  

    I’m an Opera user, so I expect these terse messages.  There are plenty of other places that DO work, so I normally just go find another site.  In this case, I don’t think I’m missing out on Live maps, since I can get maps from at least three other places.

    Still, I wanted to check every map site I could think of when I was researching my first response.  I wanted to see which sites were still sending people over unpassable roads.  So this time, I fired up IE and tried again.

    Although IE gets further than Opera, IE didn’t work on Live Maps, either!  

    Preemptive snarky:  My IE is set to be very paranoid.  I’m sure your IE works just fine, thanks.

  33. KenW says:

    @Mike: Slashdot called. They miss you.

    @Eric Lippert: Not a good idea. A pipe sturdy enough to convince someone to stop would have to be sturdy enough to cause a lot of damage.

    Besides, that also blocks the oversize vehicles that have reason to approach (not go under) the bridge, like the DOT truck that gets sent out to fix it after the moron has crashed into it.

    A better solution would be to quit issuing driver’s licenses to morons. Or at least quit issuing commercial-class licenses to them – they wouldn’t be allowed to drive a bus without it.

    @SM: Your conspiracy thought won’t work. High-cube (13’6" semi trailers) didn’t exist back then; as recently as the early 1980s they were considered oversized, special order trailers. (I worked as a long haul trucking dispatcher for a few months after I got out of the military. We had 13’6" high cube reefers hauling Ore-Ida frozen foods out of both Idaho and Wisconsin.)

  34. Cooney says:

    Cooney: It’s not a good IQ test. A friend was talking about how he had an office with a good view of the highways around Boston that have lots of low bridges. Apparently every Fall would bring a new crop of Harvard and MIT freshmen with rental vans who would ignore the flashing lights and low-bridge signs. I’ve seen those lights flash, and it is easy to assume they don’t apply to you.

    This is proof that it’s a good IQ test – you can be plenty smart for MIT and still be a dumbass about real life. I knew a girl from there (who grew up in NYC) who didn’t know that you have to change the tires on your car , and another who didn’t change her oil for over a year.

  35. Mike says:

    > "Web browser and Live Maps are incompatible"

    >

    Give it credit, though:  At least it offers Firefox as an option.

    >

    True, but my browser is based on Gecko. It effectively /is/ Firefox.

    /Mike

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