AAA asks federal safety agency to review Bay Bridge crash
By By Candy Thomson and The Baltimore Sun
Jul 22, 2013 | 10:09 PM
The region's largest automobile club on Monday called on the National Transportation Safety Board to investigateacrash on the Bay Bridge that catapulted a car and its driver 27 feet into the Chesapeake Bay.
"In my book, if a bridge doesn't get you from Point A to Point B dry, it's failed," said Lon Anderson, managing director of the 900,000-member AAA Mid-Atlantic. "On Friday night, the Bay Bridge failed."
That night, a tractor-trailer struck a car, sending it over the bridge barrier and into the water below. The woman driving the car suffered minor injuries and was able to free herself and swim to nearby rocks.
In a letter to NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, Anderson said the crash raises serious questions about the integrity of the safety barriers that could shake public confidence in the 61-year-old span.
"No motorist using this facility should have to worry about going off the bridge in the event of an incident," Anderson wrote. "We think your agency's investigation of this crash would provide that assurance or lead to the changes necessary to provide motorists that peace of mind."
Maryland Transportation Authority officials, who run the bridge, said they "welcomed the involvement and expert insight" from the NTSB.
Keith Holloway, a spokesman for NTSB, said the agency has received the letter and is reviewing it.
Maryland Transportation Authority Police continued their investigation Monday, including a crash reconstruction. No charges have been filed against the driver of the tractor-trailer, Gabor Lovasz of Prince Edward Island, Canada.
MdTA spokeswoman Kelly Melhem said the investigation "likely will take weeks."
The accident comes as the MdTA is beginning a two-year review of the Bay Bridge's remaining life span. The $1 million study, prompted by two state senators, is the initial step in determining when lawmakers would have to act on building a third crossing to help ease congestion caused by 28 million annual users.
This is only the second time in the bridge's history that a vehicle has plunged off one of the two spans. In 2008, a three-vehicle crash on the eastbound side propelled an 18-wheeler through the railings and into the water, killing the driver.
But there have been at least three close calls that made headlines. In 1980, a tractor-trailer broke through the guardrail on the westbound span and dangled over the water. A year later, the driver of a tractor-trailer on the eastbound causeway lost control and landed in shallow water. Just over a year ago, at the height of the vicious storm known as a derecho, a tractor trailer was slammed against the barrier and nearly tipped over the side. The driver scrambled to safety.
The Bay Bridge is hardly alone in these kinds of accidents. In the past eight years, the 20-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel that carries U.S. 13 from the Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach has had three vehicles plunge into the water and two tractor-trailers tip over in high wind.
The nightmare began for Morgan Lake of Calvert County just after she drove onto the eastbound span Friday about 8:30 p.m., on her way to Philadelphia. The 22-year-old College of Southern Maryland student looked in her rearview mirror and saw a tractor-trailer truck bearing down on her.
The truck slammed into her 2007 Chrysler Sebring, pushing it into the 31/2-foot-high concrete barrier that acts as a guard rail. The tractor-trailer struck the car a second time as it bounced back onto the roadway, and this time the barriers weren't enough. The car teetered on the top before plunging about 27 feet into the water.
The force shattered the windshield and driver's side window. Water rushed in.
"I got one good scream in, and after that scream, the car hit the water," Lake told WJZ-TV. "My mouth filled up with water. My eyes were closed; the car was sinking faster than I expected. I had a moment where I was shivering around and slightly giving up, but then I felt the drowning sensation. I felt like I was drowning and I didn't want to."
Lake got her bearings and swam to a rock piling near the bridge, where she was assisted by a boater until police arrived. She was treated for bumps and bruises at Maryland Shock Trauma Center and released.
"We dodged a bullet Friday," said Anderson. "Every time something like this happens, it raises doubts."
A state inspection of the railings after the 2008 fatal accident found corrosion of reinforcing steel bolts. A panel convened to review bridge safety concluded a year later that while the bridge railings did not meet the standards at that time, it would be possible to upgrade during future rehabilitation projects. Crews worked on the rails in 2009.
Anderson said he has been told by Maryland transportation officials that the state's bridge barriers meet federal specifications that require them to keep cars on the roadway.
"So this isn't supposed to happen," he said. "I would hope the NTSB would be interested in how a car got over the bridge and into the water."
Andrew Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said cement Jersey barriers are used quite extensively on bridges across the country. When designing guardrails and barriers, engineers take into account the height and weight of vehicles and the likely angle of impact.
"How far do you go in protecting people? Is this an isolated case, or is this happening every third day?" Herrmann said. "It's up to the NTSB to decide, and if somebody wants to change the standards, that's where it starts."