One of the most challenging maneuvers for mariners is passing under a bridge—the “white knuckler.” Many bridges appear to have been planned and built with seemingly little or no regard for real-world navigation safety. This in turn significantly compromises the safety of people in cars, trucks or trains that travel over bridges.
The biggest problem is when bridge draws are not aligned with the axis of the navigable channel and the prevailing directions of the current. This forces vessel traffic to execute turns before, after, or during the passage through. This can be very difficult, especially with narrower openings and/or larger, heavier tows. The risk of an allision increases significantly when a following current inhibits maneuverability.
It is important to understand that an approach that looks easy to judge during the day can be a nightmare after dark.
Often, the placement and visibility of marker lights is ineffective. The installation of red lights along the top of the insides of the draws, not just at the ends, would help provide good depth perception at night. The lights serve as a range that can be used to accurately line up and hold the angle of approach. If the lights must repeatedly be replaced and become too impractical to maintain, a durable and inexpensive alternative is plastic drive-over road reflectors that are common on many highways. Any non-navigation lighting, such as floodlights, should be carefully aimed and shielded to prevent blinding mariners at critical moments.
Bridge strikes are common at the worst bridges. Regulators and bridge owners need to learn to look at bridges from a mariner’s perspective. To us, bridges are simply obstructions to safe navigation that require a lot of effort, skill and, sometimes, luck to avoid hitting. Maybe then constructive steps can be taken to improve bridge safety, and the number of strikes can be significantly reduced. Simply burdening mariners with the results of bad planning and construction, and hoping for the best, is not the answer.