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Risking the bridge

Highway and Road DisastersTransportation DisastersChesapeake Bay BridgeAAATransportation IndustryNational Transportation Safety Board

It was unsurprising to learn that AAA Mid-Atlantic has asked the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate last Friday's crash at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that propelled a car 27 feet down over the side. The driver survived, but not easily — as the vehicle sank in 10-foot waters, she had to extricate herself from her seat belt, wriggle out a broken window and swim to nearby rocks.

It was a harrowing ordeal for Morgan Lake, the Southern Maryland driver who was not at fault in the crash, and it touched on the worst fears of every motorist who has ever crossed the 4.3-mile span, which rises to 186 feet above the bay between Sandy Point and Kent Island. For many the view across the water is spectacular, while for others it's spectacularly scary to be so high for so long, with only a relatively short barrier to prevent a fall.

While it's entirely appropriate for federal authorities to look into the crash, and specifically whether the railings are sufficient to prevent a similar ordeal, it's also wise not to lose sight of the reality that such accidents are exceedingly rare. Since the first Bay Bridge span opened in 1952, there have been only a handful of cases where vehicles have threatened to go over the side, let alone the two that have actually fallen off the bridge.

Prior to Friday's accident, only one other vehicle had fallen completely over — a tractor-trailer. It was involved in a multi-vehicle accident and crashed through the railing, killing the driver. Investigators later determined that bolts in the railing had become corroded, and that may have contributed to the circumstances. They have since been replaced, and stabilizing bars have been added to reinforce the barriers.

So here's the score. The Bay Bridge has handled hundreds of millions of vehicles over 61 years — 28 million between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012 alone — and during that time, just two accidents have caused vehicles to go over the side. Purely from an odds-making point of view, that doesn't exactly make it Maryland's most dangerous traffic obstacle.

That's not to suggest the Maryland Transportation Authority should not undertake every effort to make the bridge as safe as possible. Most recently, the agency added rumble strips, signs and a painted buffer to help reduce the chances of head-on collisions when two-way traffic is running on the westbound span. Even minor accidents on either of the two spans, particularly in peak summer travel times as vacationers are headed to or from Ocean City and the other beach resorts, can result in extraordinary backups and travel delays.

As the Eastern Shore has become more developed and the spans have required additional maintenance and occasional lane closures, even daily traffic volume has become a challenge. The possibility of creating a third span at Sandy Point or elsewhere — a possibility now under review by the MdTA as part of a comprehensive study of the facility — is not out of the question.

Still, much of the scariness of the Bay Bridge is more perception than reality. Last Friday's crash drew considerable media attention, particularly for an accident in which no one was killed. Meanwhile, Maryland suffered 485 traffic fatalities in 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available.

According to the MdTA, between 2008 and 2011, the bridge averaged 43 crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Maryland's statewide average is 166 crashes per 100 million vehicle miles, making the bridge four times as safe as the average Maryland thoroughfare.

Yet the Chesapeake Bay Bridge — or the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, as it is properly known — regularly makes lists of frightening bridges. Travel + Leisure magazine chose the bridge as one of the "world's scariest" in 2010, along with a rope bridge with a single handrail in Ireland and a teak bridge in Myanmar that has no rails whatsoever.

What could possibly make the Chesapeake Bay Bridge so unnerving that it can be compared to rickety foot bridges with widely spaced wooden floor boards that swing in the wind? Because drivers are "notoriously afraid of this bridge," and when bad weather hits at the halfway point of such a long span, "you can barely see land," the author notes.

Let's keep the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as safe as possible, but let's also not get hysterical about it. Better to stay focused on the most serious safety threats — drunken driving, driver distraction and speeding, to name a few — than to fret about dangers that become inflated by our phobias. Getting forced off the side of the Bay Bridge may be a horror story, but it probably shouldn't be high on anyone's list of major threats facing Maryland's motoring public.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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