State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said steps already are being taken to correct what a federal panel Tuesday labeled “a series of deficiencies” that led to last year’s collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River.
Peterson’s statement came after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blamed the collapse on a distracted pilot-car driver on a hands-free phone call, insufficient warning signs about the low clearance on the bridge and a lax system authorizing the travel of oversized loads.
Chris Hart, acting chairman of the four-member board, said the report by NTSB staffers showed “many missed opportunities to prevent this accident.”
The board voted unanimously on its recommendations after a nearly two-hour hearing in Washington, D.C.
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Peterson’s statement, thanking the NTSB for its input, was in sharp contrast to the reaction of Patricia Auvil, owner of Olympic Peninsula Pilot Service, which provided the pilot car guiding the truck.
“It’s an inside joke,” Auvil said. “We’re out there to protect the public, but when anything goes wrong, it’s the pilot’s fault.”
She said pilot-car driver Tammy DeTray was using a legal, hands-free phone. Auvil blames the calamity on the lack of warning that the outside lane of the bridge had a low clearance.
“Frankly, our state sucks when it comes to overheight loads,” she said.
A large section of the bridge fell into the Skagit River on the evening of May 23, 2013, after a truck’s overheight load hit a low section on the overhead crossbeams. Two cars plunged into the river, but the three occupants escaped serious injury.
Investigators have determined that if the truck had been traveling in the inside lane, it would not have hit the beam.
The truck, driven by William Scott of Mullen Trucking, was carrying a steel platform used for well drilling. It was 15 feet, 11 inches tall — 6 inches taller than the outer curve of the overhead beam.
The NTSB report faulted the state for a lack of low-clearance warning signs — and not just at the Skagit bridge.
“Washington State has 22 bridges on its interstate system with a similar design … and none have low-clearance signs or give any indications of the lane oversized vehicles should use,” the report says.
The report also criticized the system that allows trucking companies to enter data on an Internet site about a trip and then automatically receive a permit, without anyone actually reviewing the company’s plan.
In addition, it said truckers should be able to receive more complete information about any potential hazards on the route.
Peterson said she appreciates the NTSB report’s recognition that permitting oversized loads is an issue that requires national attention.
“WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) has a history of proactively working with the freight industry and we will continue to be an active partner as these efforts progress,” Peterson said. “We all aim to provide the safest conditions possible for the traveling public.”
Some recommendations from the board are not steps that WSDOT can take on its own, but would require collaborative effort with the trucking industry and the Legislature, said Lars Erickson, WSDOT spokesman. As an example, he cited a recommendation that loads as wide as the travel lane be accompanied by two pilot vehicles, one in front and another behind.
The pilot vehicle in front of the Mullen truck was equipped with a 16-foot pole to ensure safe passage for the load.
The driver, DeTray, told investigators her pole didn’t strike any beams.
She said that as she crossed the bridge, she was speaking on a hands-free phone with her husband, who holds a commercial driving license, about clearance hazards south on Interstate 405.
The NTSB report said a witness, an off-duty commercial truck driver driving alongside the pilot vehicle, said he saw the pole touch the bridge in four or five places.
The board said it was unable to determine if the guide pole actually struck the bridge, but said the pilot driver’s phone call was a distraction that “diminished her ability to recognize whether the height pole struck the bridge.”
Board member Robert Sumwalt said, “Her entire reason for being there was to protect the oversize vehicle and the vehicles that shared the roadway with her, and yet she jeopardized the safety of others because of a cellphone call.”
The investigation also showed that Scott’s truck was driving too closely behind the pilot vehicle, a factor that would have reduced his ability to stop if needed.
The 59-year-old Skagit River bridge carries an average of 71,000 vehicles a day. A permanent replacement was completed in September.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2222