A Bridge Too Low

A difference of 32 inches between a truck and a bridge is enough to ruin any driver's day.

When he heard his truck exploding around him, William Calderon thought, Oh my God, I die. The shriek of metal colliding with metal filled the cab as Calderon wrestled the steering wheel.

He didnt die, but last Thursday morning, standing beside Garland Road in East Dallas near White Rock Lake, Calderon was one pissed-off truck driver. Piloting his own rig from California--pulling an 18-wheel Hawk company trailer full of 27-inch TVs--the former Los Angeles cabbie had slammed into a notorious low-clearance bridge. His truck wasnt damaged and most of the cargo was intact, but the new $25,000 trailer was trashed, its roof caved in.

Im a professional, Calderon insisted, almost trembling with outrage while a tow truck driver hooked up the trailer and police officers directed traffic. Ive been here many times. I have professional maps for every city. This bridge is not on the map.

But its a common sight at the old railroad bridge: an 18-wheel trailer beached on the side of the road, its metal top peeled back like a tin of sardines and a shell-shocked truck driver wringing his hands.

So far this month, its happened three times. An Aarons Rental semi got stuck under the bridge on June 1. On June 12, a Dr Pepper trailer buckled in the middle from the impact like a beer can crushed on a drunks forehead. Calderon hit it on June 15.

People who have shops in the area say it happens all the time. In five months of working at a nearby liquor store, Jin Woo Lee says hes seen it happen oh, 20 times. Sometimes drivers stop just before slamming into the bridge. Its impossible to do a U-turn so it takes a lot of maneuvering to get out of their predicament; meanwhile traffic piles up behind the trapped rig.

From Interstate 30, truckers turn north on East Grand Avenue but have no idea theres a low bridge until they go over a rise and cross an overpass. At Coronado Avenue, a bright yellow sign warns that the bridge clearance is 12 feet 10 inches. Fifty feet before the bridge are three more bright yellow signs giving the clearance. The distance between the two: one-fifth mile.

Most rigs are at least 13 feet high; all commercial truck drivers are required to know their rigs height. But Calderon, whose rig was 13 feet 6 inches tall, says he came over the hill and was watching merging traffic when he saw the bridge signs and hit the brakes. Then BAM!

So whos to blame?

The Texas Department of Transportation, which is responsible for State Highway 78/Garland Road?

DART, which owns the defunct railroad bridge?

The city of Dallas, responsible for Gaston Road, which merges with Garland a few hundred feet before the bridge?

Or truck drivers who plow into the bridge without realizing their loads are too high?

Well, everybody is passing the buck, but the big-rig accidents happen too frequently to ignore. They need to tear it down, says Pat Jones, owner of the palm-reading shop next to the bridge. Its pretty dangerous, and the bridge is useless.

Tow truck driver Eric Elliott hauled off the Dr Pepper trailer. (The driver declined to comment, and the companys safety director Davy Mullinax did not return phone calls.)

Thats probably my third one, Elliott says. Basically, the driver didnt realize the bridge was so low, and by the time he realized it, it was too late. It just pulled the top off the truck. The driver was in shock. He was frustrated with himself because he didnt see the sign in time.

Elliott doesnt blame the drivers. If you are coming over that rise, trying to shift gears to merge with traffic, theres too much distraction right there that takes your mind off the bridge, he says. Youre worried about hitting somebody else instead of the bridge.

DART acquired the Sante Fe railroad bridge in 1988 when it was posted at 13 feet but has no current plans to use it. (No trains run on the track.) Resurfacing of the road last year decreased the clearance to 12 feet 10 inches, says Morgan Lyons, DART spokesman. We re-measured and put new signs up, Lyons says.

Removing the bridge now would cost DART a lot of money. The only thing we can do is warn truck drivers, Lyons says, and hope they realize that 12 feet 10 inches means 12 feet 10 inches.

The city has expressed an interest in turning the railroad right of way into a hike-and-bike trail, Lyons says, but nothing has happened to move that plan forward.

If that happens, the old bridge will be taken down and a new one with a higher elevation will be installed, says Dale Long, with the citys transportation department.

Meanwhile, truck drivers are responsible for their rigs. If you are Shawn Bradley, over 7 feet tall, you know better than to come in my house and run around, Long says, adding that other factors may come into play, including age and experience of the truck drivers and their familiarity with the U.S. road system and maps.

Steve Lawrence, crew chief with TXDOT, is puzzled by the phenomenon. The bridge has been there a number of years, he says. I dont know what sparked this. Lawrence says there may be simply more--and more inexperienced--truck drivers on the road. Someone gets downsized, spends a few weeks at trucking school, and suddenly they are behind the wheel of a 30-ton behemoth. (One of the questions on the test for a commercial drivers license involves knowing the height of your vehicle.)

Lawrence works truck accidents and says hes seen a lot more rollovers of big rigs. Loads are getting bigger and heavier, but most accidents are caused excessive speed, he says. Inattention and inexperience also play a big part. At a recent rollover, a female truck driver told him, Wow, that never happened to me before. Lawrence found out shed been driving all of a week.

Lawrence wonders if more signs along East Grand before it turns into Garland Road would help. Well, it couldnt hurt, and signs dont cost much.

Calderon says his company trailer was destroyed. He has insurance and admits the accident was 100 percent all my responsibility, but his profit from the haul is down the tubes. He found another trailer to get his TVs to their destination.

Im broke now, he moaned. Itll be on my record. I have many questions for my lawyer.

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