OCEAN CITY – The tragic accident on the Bay Bridge early last Sunday morning that left one man dead, another woman in the hospital, a tractor-trailer floating in the Chesapeake Bay and snarled traffic to and from the beach on a busy day in August raised questions this week about the integrity of the decades-old spans and the safety of two-way traffic.
Shortly before 4 a.m. last Sunday, a Mountaire tractor trailer traveling westbound on the William Preston Lane Memorial Bridge swerved to avoid a vehicle heading eastbound that crossed the center lane, struck the Jersey wall barrier and careened over the side, plunging about 40 feet into the Chesapeake Bay below. The driver of the Mountaire truck, John R. Short, 57, of Willards, was killed in the crash and his body was later recovered from the water.
The tractor-trailer floated in the bay and was contained to an area just under the bridge until it could be removed on Monday. The driver of the vehicle that crossed the center line, identified as Candy Lynn Baldwin, 19, of Millington, Md., has since admitted she likely fell asleep at the wheel, and although no charges had been filed against her as of late yesterday, an investigation of the accident continues.
Baldwin remains in the hospital this week and her passenger, identified as Trisha Anne Carrigan, 21, of Quincy, Calif., was treated and released. The driver of the third vehicle involved in the accident, identified as Seung Won Hong, 41 of Springfield, Va., and her passenger, identified as Ho Yoo, 42, of Alexandria, were not injured.
The accident closed the eastbound span for much of the day on Sunday, one of the busiest days of the week and one of the busiest weekends of the summer, creating massive traffic jams in both directions. Many resort visitors who left Ocean City on Sunday afternoon did not reach their destinations until early Monday morning and similar traffic nightmares were reported from drivers heading east to the Eastern Shore and Ocean City.
One couple checking into a West Ocean City motel well after midnight on Monday morning said the typical three-hour trip to the beach took almost 13 hours. Another family driving back to Pennsylvania from Ocean City on Sunday said the usual four-hour drive took over 12 hours including five hours spent in the last four miles before reaching the bridge.
It’s important to note the horror stories about traffic back-ups are incidental to the tragic death of the Mountaire truck driver, but the incident raised important questions this week including the engineering failure of the bridge to restrain the truck and keep it from leaving the bridge surface; the impact of two-way traffic on the bridges; and the issue of inadequate capacity of the bridge across the bay.
According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, 70 percent of the fatal crashes happen on the Bay Bridge when two-way traffic patterns are employed. A similar traffic pattern was in place last May when three people were killed in a crash on the bridge when trailer came detached from the vehicle towing it. While the investigation into Sunday’s accident is ongoing, it appears likely the two-way traffic pattern at least contributed to it.
“We are concerned about the unique safety challenges that two-way traffic poses to motorists,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic manager of public and government affairs Ragina C. Avarella this week. “While it is too early to determine what the exact cause of the crash was, it is possible that the two-way traffic flow many have been a contributing factor in this tragic crash. The reality is that yesterday’s [Sunday’s] tragedy did not have to be as serious and disruptive as it was.”
In a separate but related issue, Avarella pointed out the capacity of the current eastbound and westbound spans across the Chesapeake is insufficient to meet the demand, especially on heavily traveled summer weekends. Nearly constant work on one or both of the bridges exacerbates the problem by funneling heavy traffic into fewer lanes on the spans.
“This crash, with the resulting 13- to 14-mile back-ups should be an urgent reminder of the very finite and very fragile nature of our current bay crossings,” she said. “Under the best of circumstances, we do not have enough capacity with long back-ups now the norm on weekends. Yesterday’s [Sunday’s] gargantuan traffic back-ups are a reminder of just how limited and fragile our current bay-crossing arrangement really is.”
Former Governor Robert Ehrlich commissioned a task force to study how to increase traffic capacity across the Chesapeake Bay, but he was not re-elected leaving the task force’s recommendations on the table when he left office. Avarella this week urged the O’Malley administration to pick up where his predecessor left off.
“We urge Governor O’Malley to consider studying additional solutions addressing traffic capacity across the Chesapeake Bay,” she said. “It is a crucial need which is further demonstrated by yesterday’s crash and lane closures which extended over 24 hours and left tens of thousands of motorists trapped in traffic jams extending over 13 miles. These are serious and nagging issues that need to be addressed.”