Low Bridge Ahead! Some Drivers See It, Others Don't

A few weeks ago, I was headed out of town when I came upon a line of cars and trucks that were standing still. I got out of my car and looked ahead, and saw a semi stopped just short of a railroad overpass with a slightly low clearance – 13 feet, 4 inches, I think it is.

On SR 42 just northeast of Delaware, Ohio, a trucker has stopped to check the clearance between the railroad bridge and the roof of his trailer. It was enough. Photos: Tom Berg

A few weeks ago, I was headed out of town when I came upon a line of cars and trucks that were standing still. I got out of my car and looked ahead, and saw a semi stopped just short of a railroad overpass with a slightly low clearance – 13 feet, 4 inches, I think it is.

The driver was out looking at the bridge and the roof of his van trailer. From my vantage point, it appeared he had just enough room, and it turns out he did. He drove forward safely and soon traffic was moving again.

This doesn’t always happen on the other side of town -- Delaware, Ohio, where I live -- where there's an even tighter overpass: 12 feet, 7 inches, almost a foot shorter than the common 13-6-high van. It’s long been a problem for truckers and the city, according to spokesman Lee Yoakum.

“Since 2015 to date, it’s been hit 13 times,” he said. “That does not include how many times a driver stops before hitting it and has to turn around and needs help. And some manage to do it themselves.”

Turning around alone wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do because West Central Avenue, where the railroad bridge is, is an old, mostly two-lane street with few places where a guy could maneuver a tractor-trailer into. And it’s heavily traveled, especially during rush hours. That’s why police have to be called to direct traffic.

Numerous signs on West Central Avenue (SR 37) in Delaware warn of this 12' 7" overpass, and there's a posted truck route that avoids it. Yet it's been hit many times over the years.

Central Avenue is State Route 37, so it’s understandable why a trucker would blunder onto it. However, Yoakum said there are numerous warning signs, some with flashing yellow lights, in either direction from the bridge. And there’s a truck route for SR 37 that avoids the overpass. Yet truck drivers still end up on Central and sometimes bash the bridge.
“Anecdotal information seems to indicate that drivers are inexperienced or are distracted, for whatever reason, maybe because of all the things that are inside a modern truck,” he said. “Maybe they’re using the wrong kind of GPS” device, one programmed for motorists who aren’t concerned about overhead restrictions.
“When a truck hits the bridge, the cost to the city is $2,000 to $5,000 for clean up, extra police, and so on,” Yoakum continued. Some of that is recovered because the fine for striking the bridge is $1,000. The fine for getting police help to turn around is $750. Damage to a truck or trailer is another matter.
The city has looked at "tattletales," which are hanging devices that would strike the leading edge of a truck to warn the driver that he’s about to hit something much more substantial. But for various reasons, city council members didn’t like the idea, he related.
Instead, Delaware will install a laser-activated warning system.
“Vehicles too tall will trip a laser beam, triggering a flashing message that will warn drivers to stop immediately, and a phone number for assistance getting turned around,” Yoakum explained.
This is a recently developed device and an expensive proposition, with bids last year coming in at more than $500,000. The city is getting financial and acquisition help from Ohio’s Department of Transportation that would cut the city’s cost to about $215,000, the amount it had budgeted for the project.

The most common type of vehicle to bash the bridge is a 13-foot, 6-inch-tall tractor-trailer, like this one. Damage to the rig far exceeds the $1,000 fine for the infraction. Photo: Delaware Police Dept.

Tall vans are what usually hit the bridge, and at least one forward-discharge concrete mixer truck with a high filler funnel has been caught by it. But “the most famous incident was with the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ tour bus,” whose crew roamed the country filming college girls, well, going wild. That was in 2011, Yoakum recalled. “It knocked the air conditioner off the top of the roof. So ‘Bus Goes Topless’ was the headline” in the local paper.
“’The driver was distracted’ was the cause, and there were all kinds of jokes about ‘distracted by what?” he chuckled. Hmm. So, that new warning system will have a downside: It’ll eliminate, er, too-tall tales like that.
ANOTHER UPDATE: On March 5, the 15th altercation since 2015 occurred between tall trucks and a low bridge in Delaware, Ohio. This was four days after the previous incident (below) and one in a series described in this Trailer Talk blog last week (above). The driver was Wilhelm Berg (no relation to me) from Ontario, Canada. See the story here.
On March 1, the day after this article was posted, another truck hit the bridge on West Central Avenue in Delaware. Police say it was a “box truck” owned by a paper recycling company, and it was just a little too high to get under the 12-7 span. This was the 14th incident since 2015.
“The roof got peeled away as he went under, but he got past it,” said Officer Kenneth Valverde of the Delaware PD, “and he pulled into the parking lot” just past the bridge. He was not injured but was cited and faces the fine of $1,000 for hitting the bridge.
“I wish there was a better way to alert the drivers,” Valverde commented. “The excuses I get (when responding to these accidents) is that they’re paying attention to their GPS directions and not to the signs.”
ANSWER TO READERS' COMMENTS: "Lowering the road to allow for clearance has been suggested," said Delaware's spokesman, Lee Yoakum. "This requires improvements to the pavement and nearby intersections to account for the (resulting) heavier truck volume, with estimated cost of $2 million to $3 million, and a construction time of six or more months and major detours.
"Raising the bridge would require even greater money -- that the City does not have available -- and cooperation from the railroad on altering the track grade and shutting down the line for construction. Neither option is currently being considered by City Council."