Bay Bridge safety upgrades aimed at reducing risk of head-on crashes

Continuous rumble strips and a vividly painted buffer will be added to the Bay Bridge to protect motorists when the westbound span is running with two-way traffic.

The Maryland Transportation Authority board voted unanimously to accept the recommendations of a safety committee that evaluated the conditions surrounding five fatal crashes over the last 12 years and looked at modifications — from permanent barriers to temporary markers — to protect the public.

The rumble strip installation and paint job, expected to cost less than $500,000, will be carried out next spring in time for summer traffic, officials said. The painted buffer will make lane changes between the left lane and the center lane illegal, even when all three lanes are westbound.

MdTA Executive Director Harold Bartlett said the additions will act as both "visual and physical guides" to keep motorists in their lanes without creating a tunnel effect with barriers that can lower sightlines and raise anxiety levels.

Given increasing volume — almost 13 percent since 2000 — eliminating two-way traffic on what is normally the westbound span during peak weekend and vacation periods was not an option, Bartlett said.

But fatal crashes, the first in November 1996, triggered safety questions from the public. Improvements included the installation of stretches of rumble strips between traffic lanes and strobe lights on the overhead signs. Trucks weighing more than five tons were restricted to using the far right lane.

High-profile crashes a little more than a year apart prompted more discussions among authority officials and board members about reducing risk.

In May 2007, three people died in a seven-vehicle accident when a small trailer being towed by a sport utility vehicle came unhitched. In August 2008, the driver of a commercial truck died when a car crossed into his path and the truck struck the right jersey wall and went over the side and into the Chesapeake Bay.

The authority added more warning devices after the 2008 crash, and there haven't been any more fatal accidents, Bartlett said.

In 2010, there were five crashes with injuries on the westbound span, only one of which occurred during two-way operations. In 2011, there were seven crashes with injuries on the westbound span, four of which occurred during two-way operations.

Finding additional safety enhancements became difficult because of the span's structural limitations, said Don MacLean, a traffic engineer in the study group.

The three-lane westbound span has no shoulders and the center lane is 12 feet wide — the minimum standard set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. In addition, the weight of barriers might require the state to shore up the bridge's underpinnings.

Placing a 42-inch-high barrier between the center lane and the far left lane most likely would reduce sightlines on the span's big curve, and using temporary markers would create hazards if a vehicle knocked one into oncoming traffic, MacLean said.

Crews will paint double solid lines with diagonal hash marks in between and install rumble strips the length of the 4.3-mile span, Bartlett said.

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