Safety on the Bay Bridge: Where the most accidents happen, the causes and what's being done

More than 27 million vehicles cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge each year. Drivers take in an expansive view that is not only beautiful, but a view some say is also distracting and dangerous.
 
The bridge's heavy traffic volume at peak times, height and more than four mile span over the Chesapeake Bay, often land it a spot among the World's scariest bridges. But having lived on Kent Island for many years, Ellen Gale was never afraid to cross the bridge, until the morning of April 18, 2011.
 
"Unfortunately, I remember the day like it was yesterday," Gale said. "It's awful, awful."
 
 
A state trooper called and said her husband Harry Blauvelt, 70, was killed in a horrific accident. His car stalled on the eastbound span of the bridge, which has no shoulders. 
 
"He got out of his car, he went way in front of his car," Gale said. "An 18-wheeler was able to go around him, other cars were able to go around him. A flatbed truck unfortunately, not paying attention, slammed into the back of my husband's car."
 
Blauvelt was then hit by his own car and propelled over the jersey barrier into the water below the bridge.
 
"I do think about him everyday," Gale said. "Unfortunately, when I do cross the bridge, as soon as I hit the spot he went over, I do think, about that."
 
Gale's emotions about the bridge came rushing back last summer, when she saw the news about Morgan Lake, then 22. A tractor trailer knocked the college student's car over the eastbound span of the bridge, not far from Harry Blauvelt's accident.
 
Miraculously, Lake was able to swim to a jetty where she was rescued. The crash again shifted focus to the jersey barriers on the bridge. AAA Mid-Atlantic called on the National Transportation Safety Board to look into the accident and the integrity of the barriers.
 
"Our primary concern at that time was whether or not the existing restraint systems were strong enough, that they met federal regulations, and as a result of the NTSB report, we certainly know that that is the case," said Ragina Cooper-Averella, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Maryland.
 
The NTSB released its report in March. It blamed the truck driver's inattention and unfamiliarity with traveling the bridge. It was yet another rear-end crash. Rear-end crashes account for more than 70 percent of accidents on the Bay Bridge. 
 
"There's nothing to be afraid of about the structure or the design of the bridge, as long as everybody pays attention and drives appropriately," said Bruce Gartner, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority
 
Gartner said the agency is introducing changes to the bridge that it hopes will reduce the number of accidents and force drivers to ignore the scenic view and pay attention to the road.
 
"What we can do is just assure them that we are taking the steps necessary to make it safe, reinforce that the accident statistics on the bridge, they're better than kind of the average crash rate on the state highway system for instance," he said. 
 
From 2002 to 2012, the number of crashes on the bridge remained flat, averaging about 62 a year. A heat map of the eastbound span of the bridge shows an accident hotspot between the toll plaza and the curve and a second hotspot right where the bridge curves to the left.
 
The MDTA installed additional speed limit signs and extended the 40 mile per hour speed limit beyond the curve. By Memorial Day, signs indicating your speed and a "Do not tailgate" sign will go up. In June, drivers will see "congestion ahead" signs with flashing yellow lights.
 
"Some of the implementations, on paper, or in theory might sound good, but I think until we go through a heavy traffic season, only time will tell," Gale said.
 
Though she appreciates the MDTA's efforts, Gale would like to see more dramatic changes. 
 
"I do not think the MDTA is going far enough, and this is my personal opinion," she said. "Like I said, I would like to see the jersey barriers heightened."
 
The current barriers on the eastbound span measure 34.75 inches in height, much shorter than those on the westbound span, which are 46 inches and 50 inches. Engineers are currently in the design process to replace the surface of the eastbound span, but construction is still several years away. 
 
"As you're going in and doing a bridge deck, you look into what other safety improvements that you can do just to upgrade it from what people are used to, whether the type of barrier changes or not, whether that's possible with a bridge deck replacement or more reflective material, etc," Gartner said.
 
Another safety measure Gale would like to see on the bridge are speed cameras. AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees.
 
"We know it's so hard for law enforcement to patrol that bridge," said Cooper-Averella. "It's essentially impossible."
 
Currently,
Maryland law limits speed cameras to work and school zones. But one thing everyone can agree on, it's also incumbent on drivers to help prevent accidents on the bridge.
 
"Tailgating, in anywhere is bad. But particularly on a bridge where you don't have shoulders," Gartner said. "When an incident happens, it affects everyone."
 
It's taken Gale years to be able to talk about her husband's accident publicly. She hopes to one day become an advocate and educate others about how to be a safe, informed driver on the Bay Bridge. 
 
"I don't want to see other families go through the pain or have the experience that I've had, just because of careless drivers on the bridge," she said.
 
Another option that has been considered in the past is building a new span that would help alleviate some of the traffic congestion, especially during peak times. In 2006, a Bay Bridge Task Force identified four possible areas where a new crossing could be built.
 
The MDTA is doing what it calls a "life-cycle cost analysis," looking at traffic patterns and projecting future numbers to see when a new bridge would be absolutely necessary. The cost of a new bridge is estimated to be around $4 billion and probably wouldn't happen for several decades.
 
But not everyone is supportive of the idea. There are concerns from environmental groups about the potential impact of building another bridge and people who live on the Eastern Shore, who feel that a new bridge would attract even more traffic and development, which they don't want. 
 
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