What we’re doing to help truck drivers prevent bridge collisions

Barbara LaBoe

Many of you no doubt remember the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in May 2013 and the dramatic images of the bridge and vehicles in the water.

This bridge over the Wallace River along State Route 2
in Snohomish County shows bridge clearance signs
 that were reviewed statewide following the Skagit
River Bridge collapse. It’s one of several steps, including a
new online mapping tool, WSDOT is taking to help truck
drivers make safer travel decisions.

The bridge fell after an oversized commercial truck struck it, sending a part of Interstate 5 and two vehicles into the river. All the drivers survived, but, tragically, Washington State Trooper Sean O’Connell was killed while managing detour traffic. Traffic on a key freight and transportation corridor also was severely disrupted.

In the aftermath we worked to set up detours and repair the bridge. But we also reviewed what else we could do to help truck drivers better prepare to travel through our state. The driver is still ultimately responsible for verifying that their truck is safe for their proposed route, but we looked for ways to help – and to better protect all motorists, our bridges and our critical freight corridors.

The result?  A new online “trip planner” system that allows truck drivers to more easily check for clearance hazards before they head out.

As part of their permit application, drivers can now enter the height of their vehicle and then the state route or interstate number. A map displays the entire route with color-coded markers for areas that are too low or may require a specific lane for proper clearance. An additional feature is the ability to use an exact address to zoom into a particular area.

See a red dot on your proposed trip map? Better find a different route or detour. Spot a yellow marker? That’s your cue to do more research about lane-by-lane clearance. Previously, drivers had to consult their own maps and then look up each bridge individually.

Red and yellow markers on the new trip planner mapping tool warn truck
drivers to avoid or use caution around low clearance bridges on their route.
The idea behind this tool had been brainstormed here for a while. When the bridge collapsed we brought it to the forefront. We still had to create a new database and a user-friendly website, but the previous “wish list” planning gave us a head start.

To make sure the product works the way truckers will use it, we also partnered with the Washington Trucking Association. Their members provided suggestions and “test drove” the system last fall as we fine-tuned the mapping tool and the website.

We’re also working to add more features such as lane-by-lane clearance levels. That feature should be in place by 2017, but we’re glad to have the new tool available for use now.

Would the trip planner have single handedly prevented the bridge collapse? It’s hard to say because numerous factors can combine to cause crashes.

That’s why we’ve also:

  • Made the new database available to third parties who have expressed interest in creating navigation and safety apps for commercial drivers. Sharing the data should get the safety information into even more drivers’ hands.
  • Rewritten our requirements and permits for clarity.
  • Reviewed signs on all bridges with clearance 15 feet 3 inches tall and lower. 
  • Made the commercial vehicle permit webpage more user friendly, including a step-by-step “How do I get a Permit?” section and answers to frequently asked questions about pilot car requirements.
  • Added the trip planner tool on our road restrictions webpage.
  • Started a comprehensive statewide review/re-measurement of all bridges 16 feet 6 inches tall or lower. This is scheduled to be complete in late 2015.

We hope these steps, and the renewed awareness of the issue, will help truck drivers make safer travel decisions across our state.