All of the details of what happened last Sunday morning on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge are still being investigated, but one thing is for sure – it was a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided.
That’s why it’s understandable some folks are using this tragedy to further their agenda and seeking to use it as a means to shine the light on safety issues with the bridge. Some have even pointed to this tragedy to suggest a third span is needed. It’s a shame the death of the Willards poultry driver is being used in this way, but it’s predictable and understandable at the same time.
When this accident occurred in the wee hours on Sunday, the three-laned, westbound span was closed for maintenance work. The two-lane eastbound span, which featured head-on traffic in both directions, was being utilized during the slow traffic period. Early reports indicate the driver of a westbound vehicle fell asleep and crossed the centerline, striking an eastbound Mountaire poultry truck, which jackknifed, struck the concrete barrier and plunged into the bay.
Besides the personal toll on all involved, the result was three days of nightmare traffic conditions around the span in all directions. Horror stories of taking 10 hours to drive five miles to reach the bridge were heard often. A lengthy investigation is also underway, including accident reconstruction studies to determine the involved vehicles’ speed and to conduct blood-alcohol tests to determine if impaired abilities was involved.
The bay bridge has long been controversial, largely because it’s the source of a lot of anxiety for some pusillanimous motorists with a fear of heights and due to the fact it’s a heavily congested span with severe backups often in both directions.
Traffic is expected to continue to be a problem along and around the bridge for years to come. Currently, about 61,000 vehicles pass over the bridge on an average weekday and 86,000 on an average summer weekday and 95,000 on summer weekend days. By 2025, traffic volumes are predicted to surge to approximately 135,000 vehicles on a summer weekend day and 91,000 on summer week days, according to a recent study. That report also predicted congestion and delays approaching the bridge each summer weekend day would increase from the current average of six hours to 12 hours over the next 20 years.
Former Governor Robert Ehrlich acknowledged the future concerns with the bridge when he named a Task Force on Traffic Capacity Across the Chesapeake Bay in 2004 to study other means to get folks across the bay. Ideas considered included a tunnel, ferry and another bridge. One year later, the task force determined an additional bridge would be the most feasible option, although even that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon because of the enormous cost and questions over where it would meet land on the western and eastern shores.
In the days following the weekend accident, a lot has been said about the bridge and whether officials could have prevented it from happening. In the face of a senseless tragedy, it’s human nature to look at preventative ways to ensure something like this does not occur again, and we think there’s reason to question whether two-lane traffic in the summer at any time is wise, but the fact is it was an accident and it could have occurred on any bridge, even on either of Ocean City’s two spans.