State must check truck heights

Two inches. That was the difference between any other day for the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River and its May 23, 2013 collapse, caused when a truck carrying an over-height load struck a crossbeam and brought the bridge down and sent two vehicles carrying three people into the river, fortunately without any loss of life.

What resulted were months of detours for traffic, congestion for the communities of Burlington and Mount Vernon, loss of business and $19.8 million for temporary and permanent replacement of the bridge.

Now the state is seeking to recoup $17 million of that, suing the truck driver and his employer, the pilot-car driver and her employer and the owner of the metal shed that was on the truck.

The state in its lawsuit, citing a Washington State Patrol investigation, claims that the truck driver was unaware of the actual height of his load, which was two inches taller than the bridge’s lowest height in the left southbound lane; that he failed to research the route and the needed clearances; that the pilot-car driver was distracted by a cell phone call and didn’t notify the truck driver when her clearance pole struck the bridge; and that the truck was following the pilot car too closely.

The state doesn’t escape some measure of responsibility here, as was noted in a National Transportation Safety Board investigation that faulted the state Department of Transportation for a voluntary route permit system that leaves it up to carriers to verify that their loads are within a route’s clearance limits.

The state has begun to address that weakness by creating a tool it calls a “vertical clearance trip planner,” a database of bridge and overpass heights that, when used by third parties to create trucking apps, would notify carriers of potential conflicts.

It sounds like a useful tool that trucking companies should take advantage of, but the state’s route permitting system remains a voluntary one that relies too heavily on carriers to use the system correctly, leaving bridges and underpasses vulnerable to human error.

Now that it has that database of clearance heights, the state ought to make use of that data, too, requiring that trucks with oversized loads stop at weigh stations early in their route to have their heights measured and checked against the database. It shouldn’t be a great expense to set up height stations that, even when no one is on duty, can check a load’s height and flash a warning if a load is not going to make it under a bridge. It might most quickly be added to the electronic screening equipment now used at 12 locations in the state that allow for trucks’ weight and other information to be checked as they pass under in the right-hand lane, without stopping.

The information is there; the trucking companies and the state just have to use it.

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