Reducing bridge allisions

We hear about barge tows hitting bridges all of the time. One of the most challenging maneuvers for mariners is passing under a bridge — the so-called “white knuckler.”

It seems that many bridges were planned and built with little or no regard for navigation safety. In turn, this significantly compromises the safety of people in cars, trucks or trains that travel over bridges.

The biggest problem occurs 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 when the openings are particularly narrow and the tows are larger or heavier. The risk of an allision increases significantly when a following current inhibits maneuverability.

It is important to understand that an approach that appears to be easy to judge during the day can become 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 and roads. 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. To us, bridges are simply obstructions to safe navigation that require a lot of effort, skill, and sometimes luck, to avoid hitting.

Regulators and bridge owners need to consider bridges from a mariner’s perspective. Maybe then constructive steps will 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.

About the author

Joel Milton

Joel Milton has worked aboard fishing boats, pilot boats, Coast Guard cutters and small boats, dredge tenders, offshore crewboats and supply boats, towing vessels, a small container ship, and a wide variety of small craft including an inflatable yellow “ducky” The Piker.

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