Calif. Officials Scrambling After Bay Bridge Crashes

In the early morning hours on Monday, a truck swerved off a new corner on the Oakland Bay Bridge and crashed through the barriers, plummeting down to land on Yerba Buena Island below. This new S-curve on the bridge was installed with repairs last Labor Day weekend, and has already been the site of at least 40 crashes or fender benders. The California Department of Transportation says speed is the problem, but it's just the latest setback as engineers and officials scramble to repair and update this crucial transportation link.

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There seems to be no end in sight for the troubles plaguing the Bay Bridge in California. It connects San Francisco and Oakland. State transportation officials had closed the bridge last month for repairs. Now, they say the bridge will have to close again after the New Year. And to make matters worse, the bridge was the sight of a deadly accident this week: a truck driver died after his big rig jumped over the rail.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

(Soundbite of a roadway)

RICHARD GONZALES: I'm standing on Yerba Buena Island, it's a massive rock that sits between San Francisco and Oakland in the East Bay, and it's the halfway point of the Bay Bridge. And I'm looking out over the site, where early Monday morning, a semi-truck filled with pears flew over the guardrail of the bridge and plunged 200 feet, killing the driver immediately.

The fiery accident occurred when the driver hit the S-curve, a new section of the bridge that was set up over the Labor Day weekend, as part of the project to repair and replace the bridge. And since then, there have been more than 40 accidents, although this was the first fatality. Officials say it could have been prevented.

Bridgett Lott is an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol.

Ms. BRIDGETT LOTT (Assistant Chief, California Highway Patrol): Preliminary information from witness statements would indicate that the driver was traveling excessive speed. That coupled with the possibility that his load shifted and weight transfer, putting that vehicle over the side.

GONZALES: This accident follows another about two weeks ago, when a Safeway grocery big rig truck entered the S-curve too fast and flipped across four lanes, impeding traffic for many hours. The speed limit on the Bay Bridge is 50 miles per hour. But the S-curve requires drivers to slow down to 40 and many don't.

Bart Ney is a spokesman for Caltrans.

Mr. BART NEY (Spokesman, Caltrans): And so what we want to do to try and make that not happen is increase that side, is increase the ability for people to really understand that the bridge has changed.

GONZALES: But traffic experts say commuters don't do change. They used to speed relatively straight through to a tunnel on Yerba Buena Island. But a new bridge is being built alongside the old one, and the S-curve was introduced as a small detour to allow construction of the new bridge.

Traffic safety expert Simon Washington at UC Berkeley says commuters tend to get in a comfortable and sometimes dangerous groove.

Mr. SIMON WASHINGTON (Director, Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, UC Berkeley): If there is an analogy to draw that they go in an automatic pilot mode - because they drive the same route every day, it becomes almost something they feel like they can do in their sleep. Well, when you change this major route, you have to readjust their behavior.

GONZALES: So now, Caltrans is putting up new signs, warning drivers of the 40-mile speed limit, reflective stripping on the guardrails, raised roadway markers and radar boards, advising motorists of their speed. And they're hoping that drivers learn a lesson from one spectacular and deadly crash.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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