Six years after a horrific tractor-trailer crash on the Bay Bridge nearly killed a Charles County woman, police reports show police have pulled a fast-rising number of trucks out of service at the bridge for possible safety hazards.
Maryland Transportation Authority citations and violation records obtained under a public records request show officers have ordered nearly 500 commercial vehicles out of service so far this year, a nearly 25 percent increase from all of 2018.
The Maryland Transportation Authority police conduct periodic commercial vehicle inspections on the bridge, to check for commercial vehicles with safety risks. A News4 I-Team review of an inspection operation in August found nearly a dozen trucks cited for risks in nearly an hour, including at least four trucks ordered out of service by police, prohibiting the trucks from entering the bridge span.
MDTA police said trucks carrying excessively heavy loads are a potential risk to the bridge surface. They also search for vehicles with deteriorated tires, misaligned brakes broken turn signals or lights or fatigued drivers.
“Out of service violations on vehicles can include headlights, stop lights, brake violations or tire violations," the agency said. "Out of service violations are critical vehicle inspection items and criteria that can prohibit a motor carrier or driver from operating a commercial motor vehicle for a specified period of time or until the condition is corrected.”
“The weight laws are set up so there’s not so much weight put on the axles of the trucks,” said MDTA police inspector Chris Heisey.
“The more weight you put on that axle, the more damage that does to the roadway, so it can tear chunks out of the roadway,” Heisey said.
Inspectors also monitor for truck drivers who are speeding, inattentive or driving recklessly, Heisey said. The agency uses roadside cameras and weigh scales to detect possible risky trucks before the vehicles cross the toll plaza on the west side of the bridge.
The Bay Bridge, a gateway between metropolitan Washington, D.C., and popular vacation destinations on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is a four-mile expanse with five lanes on two separate spans. The bridge is notorious for summer vacation season traffic backups and is known to intimidate some drivers because of its height and short jersey walls.
Heisey said commercial vehicles can also make other drivers nervous, while crossing the bridge.
“It's a large vehicle; it can be very intimidating to somebody, especially if you're in a smaller car," Heisey said. "You feel like they're either coming on top of you or they're in your lane or they're going to wind up hitting you.”
A July 2013 crash involving a tractor-trailer raised awareness about the importance of commercial vehicle safety on the bridge. A tractor-trailer driver, who was making his first solo drive in the U.S. that day, rear-ended a small car that had stopped for traffic. The car was pushed on to the jersey wall for nearly seven seconds, then plummeted into the bay below. Cellphone video captured images of the car driver, Morgan Lake of Waldorf, emerging from the water and swimming nearly 100 yards to cling to a rock until rescuers arrived.
A federal investigation said the truck driver was speeding and inattentive. Though Lake was going only 4 mph in the traffic jam, the truck driver was speeding at nearly 50 mph before impact.
“I experienced some people’s worst nightmare,” said Lake, who was on the bridge en route to visit family in Philadelphia. “I was underwater for awhile and submerged for a long time, because I was gasping."
After she escaped the car and emerged above the water, Lake swam to a rock near the base of the bridge. “I am a Christian, so I definitely felt the presence of God, who took His and told me to calm down, because there is no other way out of the fear that I felt.”
Truck drivers said they also feel some anxiety when crossing the Bay Bridge.
“(Car) drivers get tense," Djuan Silver of Odenton said. "I get nervous about the trucks, too, so I understand. There’s no guardrail there (to see), all you see is water.”
MDTA police said they also frequently see and issue citations to car drivers who are speeding, distracted or changing lanes on the bridge.
“In a perfect world, we would, everyone would focus on the task at hand," MDTA police spokesman Brady McCormick said. "But a lot of times you'll see drivers that are not doing so, and they see them swerving. Maybe they are on the cellphone maybe; they are looking off in the distance.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Steve Jones and edited by Jeff Piper.