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Trucker's unfamiliarity with Bay Bridge traffic contributed to crash

In the 60 seconds before his tractor-trailer smashed into two vehicles on the Bay Bridge last summer, propelling one into the water below, Gabor Lovasz accelerated from 8 mph to 51 mph.

In its final report on the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to Lovasz's "inattention" as well as his "unfamiliarity with the area and lack of knowledge that traffic routinely slows on the eastbound span of the bridge."

Lovasz's truck smashed into a Chrysler Sebring being driven at 4 mph by Morgan Jade Lake, sending her and her car into the bay.

The NTSB report released Wednesday caps months of investigation by various agencies into the July 19 accident. It also draws the first link between the accident — which shocked summer vacationers and longtime bridge users — and the Maryland Transportation Authority's recent announcement that it will spend $500,000 on new bridge safety signs, including warnings that congestion is common and tailgating is prohibited.

The report, called for by Maryland politicians, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, describes the sign upgrades as part of the Maryland Transportation Authority's "short-term action plan" for safety improvements on the bridge. It also mentions studies underway to address longer-term solutions, including a long-envisioned new crossing of the Chesapeake Bay.

The NTSB and the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, released reports on the incident in August, both of which pointed to Lovasz being distracted before the crash, glancing in his side-view mirror. The new report puts more emphasis on his unfamiliarity with the bridge.

Congestion is common after vehicles exit the toll plaza in 11 lanes and merge into the bridge's two lanes ahead of its leftward curve over the water. Lovasz, a Hungarian immigrant living in Canada, was driving alone in the United States for the first time, officials found.

He slammed on his brakes but could only slow to 47 mph before hitting Lake's car, pushing it over a barrier wall and then 27 feet down to the water below.

Lake, of Southern Maryland, managed to free herself from her car and reach the surface, then swam to nearby pilings as witnesses watched from the bridge deck.

Husband and wife Herb and Lisa Sutcliffe of Olney, who were in the second car hit by the truck, were not badly injured.

In October, Lovasz pleaded guilty in Anne Arundel County District Court to four traffic violations in the incident: failure to control speed on a highway to avoid a collision, negligent driving, driving in excess of reasonable and prudent speed, and unsafe lane changing. He was fined $450.

Not long after the crash, MdTA Police Chief Michael Kundrat said tailgating is a "primary reason" for crashes on the Bay Bridge and that his agency was "taking a closer look" at safety measures.

The new NTSB report found that between 2008 and 2010, the highest concentration of accidents on the bridge occurred in the area where Lovasz hit Lake's vehicle, after the eastbound toll plaza and entering the leftward curve.

Between 2002 and 2012, according to MdTA accident reports, 624 crashes occurred on the bridge's two spans. Five people were killed in three accidents.

The new signs, to be installed by the end of the year, are part of $300 million the MdTA plans to spend on upgrades to the bridge in the next six years, including upgrading the decks and suspension cables. The signs will warn drivers of their speed and the speed limit, that their headlights must be on while crossing, of any congestion ahead and that tailgating is prohibited.

In a statement, Mikulski said the final NTSB report was "a reminder of the areas of the bridge that require complete driver awareness."

She said Marylanders can't "sit back with a sigh of relief" and must continue to work to ensure that first-time motorists on the bridge "are properly informed of their driving responsibilities."

"Everyone, no matter their destination, should feel safe when they drive across the Bay Bridge," she said.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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