Experience and Common Sense Are Key

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bhc interview new The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles interviews an experienced truck driver and talks about bridges, GPS, and self-responsibility on the highway. 

This article starts off with a quote by former Temple men’s basketball coach John Chaney, who lectured a rowdy crowd during a basketball game in 2005, in response to someone throwing an object onto the court, by saying these words: “Stupid is forever. You can’t change stupidity.”  Yet stupidity can be changed; it depends on whether the person does it himself or if it is done for him- in almost every case, with consequences.

Truck drivers ignoring weight limits and height restrictions on bridges and underpasses have been a major problem in the past 10+ years, as incidents like the one in the video below have been in the news once every two days…..

And since the incident that involved the Gospel Street Bridge in Paoli, Indiana in December 2015, discussions as to how competent the truck driver was, let alone what the bridge’s future holds have flared up among networks of pontists, engineers, historians and even truckers alike.

But how would a driver react to the situation where, regardless of the dependency on the GPS, he/she ends up in the situation as Mary Lambright was in, when she disregarded the signs as seen by a pic below and made that fateful crossing?

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Photo taken by James Baughn

In response to a question posed to one trucker, his response was simple: “If you ever get in a situation where you need to turn around and can’t, you stop, call the local police and put your emergency blinkers on, and wait for assistance to come and help you out of the situation.” In reaction to the incident, Jeremy Johnson’s diagnosis of Ms. Lambright’s will to cross the bridge was simple, “This is a classic example of lack of common sense. First her truck was way too tall to go on this bridge and second, it was far too heavy.” The bridge had a weight limit of six tons and a vertical clearance of 10 feet and six inches at the time of the incident, the former Ms. Lambright later claimed that she didn’t know what six tons meant in pounds. The latter should have served as an alarm signal when approaching the bridge, according to Johnson. “Most trucks have a height of 13’6″. It’s pretty self explanatory that when you see a sign that says 11’6 bridge ahead, you’re not going to make it.”

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Jeremy Johnson’s semi-truck, idle in the parking lot while its owner is having lunch.

Jeremy Johnson has been in the trucking business for many years, having first driven for a local brewery after obtaining his CDL trucking license in 1998. After a short hiatus, he went into the trucking business full time in 2003, having worked for the farm industry, hauling livestock for 10 years, before starting his own business in his hometown of Marshall, Minnesota, three years ago. Today, he hauls dried and refrigerated goods all over the country, having seen some of the most unusual places along the way, like the largest stockyard in the country located in Oklahoma, or an underground warehouse in Missouri.

He has also seen some of the incidents on the road which makes him and other truckers both cringe and shake their heads, whether it is a trucker trying to turn around while being stuck in the mud or one cutting off a car driver on an Interstate highway.  “I have seen many things in my 10 years on the road that I guess you could say I’ve been desensitized to a point,” Johnson commented in an interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles.  “I’ve seen a lot of accidents and a lot more near misses.” In terms of a good road relationship between the trucker and the car driver, Johnson adds,  “People in cars do not respect the power of a semi. They will cut you off just to save a split second and risk everyone’s lives in doing so.”

The statistics involving truckers and accidents are alarming and sober. According to a 2014 report released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, 52,360 of the accidents on the road in the US involve trucks of all kinds; of which, 48.2% involve a truck with a semi-trailer, the kind Johnson uses for transporting goods. 3,744 of the accidents resulted in a fatality, 62.5% of which come from the rig.  The causes of these accidents have been narrowed down to the top five factors, identified by another report: driver fatigue, improper maintenance of the vehicles involved, improper loading of goods, distracted driving and lastly, inexperience. While the US government is working on a plan of regulating the amount of hours of driving on the road and governing the speed limit of semi-trucks on the highway, following examples set in Europe, much of the accidents can be avoided by experience and common sense, something Johnson says is the bread and butter of truck driving:  “There is no such thing as a great truck driver, but there is experience. Experience prepares you for the unexpected situations.”  But experience requires a driver to be fully equipped with knowledge of your truck and having the basic necessities needed to ensure that accidents like what happened at the Paoli Bridge can be avoided.

Most semi-trucks have trailers with a height of 13.5 feet, according to Johnson.  Therefore it is important to know the truck’s height and weight before departing to deliver the next goods somewhere. Even more important is to have a proper GPS device, suitable for trucks,  to ensure that the truck stays on the highway. “The GPS will sometimes route you on a non-truck route if you don’t have a truck-routed GPS system,” says Johnson. And what would be the best GPS system to use while trucking on the highway?

“I personally have a Rand-McNally truck GPS which gives me truck route only maps.” But that’s not all that he uses: “I also use my i-pad with Google Maps to have a general idea where I’m going,” Johnson adds.  It is unknown whether Lambright had a functioning GPS device in her possession at the time of the accident, but reports indicated that she had missed her turnoff as she was entering Paoli and continued travelling on the least travelled Gospel Street with her cousin, driving past the warning signs of the bridge and crossing the structure before it gave way.

The Gospel Bridge was located one block west of another crossing that was suitable for truck traffic, thus leading to the question of why the bridge was even open to traffic, in addition to the issues of fatigue and lack of essential equipment that Lambright might have had while travelling. Many engineers and transportation officials have tried to accomodate truckers by eliminating crossings like this, as well as  the Niland Corner junction at Colo, Iowa. Yet despite the attempt to give truckers the most efficient route, such projects come at a price where places not meant for truck crossings are converted into unnecessary freeway interchanges, losing not just a piece of history but also a piece of life, if a fatal accident occurs.

Speaking from a trucker’s point of view, Johnson believes that the most travelled highways suitable for trucks should be made trucker friendly whereas less-travelled highways and bridges should be left as is. “There are bridges that were built that just weren’t made for trucks, but there are truck routes in every single city and originally they were built for trucks.” He adds, “In my opinion, if a new bridge is going up then you need to make it suitable for present and future traffic and try to think ahead, but for existing bridges not made for trucks, I think they should just leave them alone.” Looking at the Niland Corner Bridge, opposition to the proposal has gone up sporatically but for a good reason: The Jefferson Highway (US Hwy. 65) runs parallel to Interstate 35, which is 10 miles to the west!

Inspite of all the accomodation attempts, the bottom line when trucking on the highway and crossing bridges are two things: common sense and experience. The more experience on the highway, the more the person will learn. Sometimes it takes some shadow training to see if the job fits like a glove, as Johnson pointed out. “In my opinion if you want to become a truck driver, then ride along with one for a month. The only way you get better is through experience.”  And in the end, if one is dedicated, experience will reap rewards as a trucker. “I learn something new out here every week. When you think you know it all its time to retire,” Johnson adds.

While Lambright lost her job, and the trucking company she worked for, based in Louisville, Kentucky, closed its doors right after the collapse of the bridge in Paoli, she still intends on returning to her career as a trucker as soon as she climbs out of her legal holes she is facing at present, which includes fines, suspension of her trucking license and possible jail time. Still, at the age of 23 years, she will need more lessons for the road, on top of what she learned from her experience at the bridge. One of the things that is important, as Johnson mentioned in the interview, is that “….people have very short memories, they forget that trucks bring them everything and I mean everything that a person uses and makes people’s lives more convenient on an everyday basis.” In other words, a trucker’s job is a privilege to be handled by those who are well-equipped with experience and common sense to deliver from point A to point B without the cost of life and property!

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Author’s Note:

  1. Thanks to Jeremy Johnson for his help in answering my questions for the article. He and I knew each other from our days at Marshall High School, playing football and basketball together before I moved to another town to finish high school. He graduated in 1996, the same year I did. 
  2. There is still no word on whether and how the Gospel Street Bridge will be rebuilt. Orange County estimates that the cost for the project will be over $1 million. The community is still set on seeing the bridge rebuilt to its original form because of its popularity in the community. More on the bridge’s future will follow.
  3. The photos of the collapsed Gospel Street Bridge are all courtesy of Greg McDuffee, who visited the bridge recently. A big thanks to him for allowing use for this article.

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A Documentary on Bridges

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Jordan Drive Bridge in Saegertown, PA  Photo taken in 2010

 

A few days ago, German Public TV Channel ZDF, one of two stations based in Berlin, released a documentary on bridges in general for children. Loewenzahn (which is German for Dandelion), with its star Fritz Fuchs and his faithful companion Keks, a Saint Bernhard dog, took the viewers on a tour of bridges, how they were constructed, and how stabile they should be for people to get across. This was all in connection with the plot of the story, which was the fact that a bridge was removed for safety reasons, keeping the children from crossing the creek and entering the soccer field for practice. Fritz received the call for help in building a new bridge from one of the players and despite the criticism from another person working for TÜV (an agency which tests the safety of buildings and cars), he found a way to build a new one for the kids. A whole episode of Loewenzahn can be found below. As the episode is all in German, it provides people with a chance to learn (or brush up on) a little German:

This was the second episode produced on bridges in two weeks. ARD and its satellite station WDR, based in Cologne, had produced a two-part documentary on the Rhine Bridges in North Rhein-Westphalia, which will be featured in a separate article. But it did get my mind to thinking about how to educate the public on bridges, ways to restore and maintain them, and the historical perspective of these crossings. Despite the expertise we have available from engineers, preservationists and experts in restoration, there seems to be a gap between those who know about how to preserve a historic bridge, let alone build a bridge with high aesthetic value but a safe crossing and those who do not know about bridges and ways to build, maintain and restore them for people to use, let alone awe in their structural beauty.  Even more alarming is the fact that the majority of the public would like to save and restore a historic bridge but they do not have the know-how on how to do it. Or even if they do, the quest for knowledge on how to restore bridges is blocked by those who want the bridge removed at any cost.

As many people from the older generations (those born in 1987 and earlier) have become aware of historic bridges and have taken action towards saving them, there is a trend that indicates that even the younger generations have taken interest in the topic of bridges, how to build them, and how to restore them. While public awareness has mostly been successful through presentations, public forums and events and through news stories, there seems to be a lack of medium as to how bridges work and how they are restored to last longer. This means that more TV documentaries on these aspects are needed for the TV-viewers, using information that is neutral, practical and useful for people to learn from. If programs, like the ones mentioned here are being televised for people of all ages here in Germany, then it is a sign that the interest is there and increasing.

Keeping this in mind, here are a pair of forum questions for you to consider and discuss either with your own friends or through the online forums facebook and linkedIn:

1. Do you know of a TV-documentary on these bridges? If so, when and where was it televised? Do they deal with a tour of a city with bridges? What about the historical aspect of these structures? On a scale of 1-10 (1 being best) how would you rate it and what are your reasons?

2. If you want to produce a documentary on bridges to be televised, what content would you put in to interest the audience? What examples of bridges would you use for the documentary? Which TV channel would you release the documentary on?

3. Could you imagine a children’s documentary on bridges on TV similar to that of Loewenzahn’s? Why or why not?

 

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The Dandelion series was conceived by its original host Peter Lustig in 1979 and first televised in 1981. The children’s series featured Lustig and each episode dealt with a theme that is current but child-friendly, with diagrams and scenes produced and demonstrated by the actor. Despite a scare with lung cancer in 1983 (which almost took his life), Lustig produced 200 episodes until he retired in 2006 and was replaced with Guido Hammesfahr who has hosted the episode ever since, under the name Fritz Fuchs. Helmut Krauss, who plays the neighbor Paschulke, is the only actor left from the Lustig series that still appears in the Fuchs’ series.  The series spun-off into a pre-school series in 2012 and was produced as a film in 2010 as part of the 30th anniversary celebration. More information on Loewenzahn can be found here.

 

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