Tag Archives: impact

Bridge Collapse In Washington Dumps Cars in River

By Kim Smiley

On May 23, 2013, a section of a four lane bridge over Skagit River near Mount Vernon, Washington unexpectedly collapsed, sending two cars into the river.  No one was killed, but the bridge failure is going to take months and an estimated $15 million to repair.  Additionally, the bridge was one of Washington’s main arteries to Canada with around 70,000 vehicles crossing it a day and detours during the repairs are significantly impacting the region.

So what caused the bridge to fail and how can a similar collapse be prevented in the future? This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map intuitively shows the causes that contributed to an issue and the cause-and-effect relationships between them. The collapse occurred after the top of an oversized truck hit a steel girder.  The bridge was a ‘fracture critical’ design, meaning that the design had little redundancy and fracture of one critical component, in this case the overhead steel girder, caused the whole bridge to collapse.  This type of design was common when the bridge was built in the 1950s because it was relatively quick and cheap to build.  Newer designs typically incorporate more redundancy to prevent a single failure from causing significantly damage, but the average bridge in the United States is 42 years old and there are thousands of fracture critical bridges across the nation.

So why did the truck impact the bridge?  This question is more complicated than it might appear on the surface.  The driver appears to have done his due diligence, but he had no warning that his truck was taller than the clearance.  The driver had a permit for hauling an oversized load on this stretch of highway.  The truck was also following a guide who gave no indication of potential clearance issues.  Additionally, there was no sign about low overhead clearance on the bridge because signage wasn’t required.  Signs are only required for overcrossing less than 14 feet and the lowest point on the bridge was higher than that.

The truck was traveling in the outside lane at the time it impacted the bridge.  The clearance over the outside lane of the bridge is lower than the inside lane because of the arch design of the bridge.  The truck’s load was 15 feet 9 inches high and the lowest clearance over the outside lane was 14 feet and 7 inches, but the inside lane has about a 17 feet clearance.  Bottom line, if the truck had simply moved into the inside lane it should have had the clearance to safely cross over the bridge.

This incident is certainly a warning about the need for redundancy in designs, but it also illustrates the need for clear communication.  If the driver had been aware that there was a potential issue, he could have changed lanes (which is a free and relatively easy solution) and the bridge collapse wouldn’t have happened.  Something needs to be changed to ensure that drivers are aware of any potential clearance issues.  In an ideal world, all bridges would be the safest, most up to date designs available, but the reality is that there are thousands of “fracture critical” bridges in use throughout the United States and we’re going to have to find ways to use them as safely as possible for quite some time.

Click here to see a Cause Map of another bridge failure, the 2007 I-35 Bridge Collapse and here to see a Cause Map of the failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.