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NTSB Lays Blame in Bridge Collapse

Friday, July 25, 2014

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Poor route planning, insufficient signage, and cell-phone calls all led to a rig crash that took down Washington's Skagit River Bridge last year, federal investigators have concluded.

An 18-wheeler carrying an oversized load struck the top of the bridge May 23, 2013. Seconds later, the span collapsed into the chilly river below.

Two cars and a camper-trailer fell into the river, and two other vehicles were damaged. None of the occupants was seriously hurt.

Skagit River Bridge collapse
WSDOT / Flickr

The Skagit River Bridge in Washington State collapsed May 23, 2013, after a truck carrying an oversize load struck the top of the structure.

In findings released July 15, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on "a series of deficiencies in a system intended to safeguard the passage of oversized loads over Washington State's roadways."

'Series of Mistakes'

The four-lane bridge carries Interstate 5 over the Skagit River about 60 miles north of Seattle. Opened in 1955, the bridge is a major commercial route between Washington and Canada, normally carrying around 71,000 vehicles per day.

The deficiencies cited by the NTSB included:

  • Failure of the driver of the pilot/escort vehicle to perform basic safety functions;
  • Inadequate route planning by the trucking company;
  • Washington State's inadequate permitting process; and
  • Lack of low-clearance warning signs for the bridge.

"This costly accident was the result of a series of mistakes that could have been avoided," said Acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.

The full report will be available in several weeks. A synopsis of the report can be found here.

Distracted Driver

The truck, bound from the Canadian border to Vancouver, WA, was operated by Mullen Trucking LP of Canada. Mullen had hired G&T Crawlers to operate the escort vehicle, as required by state law. The escort vehicle was equipped with a height pole to verify clearances for the oversized load.

However, the driver of the escort vehicle used a cell phone to make five phone calls in the 30 minutes before the accident, and she was still on a call when the truck hit the bridge, the NTSB said.

An off-duty commercial truck driver traveling near the escort car said he had seen the height pole strike the bridge four or five times, the NTSB reported.

National Transportation Safety Board

The truck was travelling in the right lane, where the bridge's clearance was lowest.  If the driver had moved to the left lane, the vehicle would have cleared the bridge, investigators said.

The escort vehicle driver said she did not see the pole contact the bridge. The NTSB was unable to conclusively determine if the pole contacted the structure, but investigators did conclude that the driver's phone use distracted her and "diminished her ability to recognize whether the height pole struck the bridge."

Even if the escort had communicated about the clearance, she was not maintaining an adequate lead distance, the NTSB found.

"Eliminating distraction in transportation is a top priority for the NTSB," said Hart.

"As we can see from this accident, any element that reduces a driver's attention can have harmful results. Drivers must always focus on the task at hand and be aware of their surroundings."

Permitting and Planning

Poor permitting and planning also contributed to the accident, the NTSB said.

The trucking company had a permit for the trip but "failed to check and plan accordingly for the low clearances encountered along the route," the agency said.

The truck was approaching the bridge in the right lane, where the clearance was lowest due to the arc design of the support brace, investigators said. Had it been in the left lane, the truck would have cleared the bridge.

The NTSB has also called for changes in the Washington State Department of Transportation's permitting process to authorize movements of oversized loads on its roadways.

Currently, trucking companies may enter data about a trip into an online application and receive a permit without a review or evaluation of the proposed activities.

NTSB said that protecting bridge nfrastructure is "too vital of a state concern to leave the responsibility of assessing the risk associated with the transportation of oversize loads entirely with the motor carrier."

Lack of Warning Signs

Additionally, the NTSB criticized the lack of warning signs, noting that WSDOT had no low-clearance signs by the bridge.

The state has 22 bridges in its interstate system with a similar design; none have low-clearance signs or indicate which lane oversize vehicles should use, according to the NTSB.

WSDOT / Flickr

The new bridge (rendering pictured) was built in 66 days and opened to traffic Sept. 15, 2013.

WSDOT has since replaced the arc brace with a horizontal design for a uniform vertical clearance of 18 feet. The agency is also developing bridge clearance data and interactive maps to improve its permit process.

Replacement Opens

The day after the collapse, Gov. Jay Inslee estimated the repairs at $15 million. The same day, then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that he would make $1 million in federal emergency funds immediately available to begin repairs.

A replacement bridge was built in 66 days and installed in 19 hours, opening to traffic Sept. 15, 2013.

The collapse "brought renewed attention to the safety and conditions of the nation's bridges," the Office of Inspector General said in August. OIG announced a planned series of audits to assess the Federal Highway Administration's management of measures to ensure bridge safety.

The audit was requested by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

In June, Rahall introduced the Strengthen and Fortify Existing (SAFE) Bridges Act to provide dedicated funding for states "to start to reduce the backlog of more than 150,000 bridges ... that have reached or are nearing the end of their expected lifespan."

"The [Skagit River] bridge that gave way was just one of thousands across the country that have exceeded their life expectancy and are in need of replacement," Rahall said in announcing the bill.


As a result of the investigation, the NTSB issued 18 safety recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration; the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico; WSDOT; the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators; the Governors Highway Safety Association; the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance; the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association; and Rand McNally, Nokia HERE, and Google Inc.

"The recommendations issued by the NTSB highlight the importance of driver awareness and the states' responsibilities to provide adequate resources about low clearances," said Hart.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Program/Project Management

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