Fatal fall

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It is a tragic loss for the Mountaire family, because it is a close-knit company. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family. We will be assisting the authorities as we wait for more information.” -Roger Marino, spokesman for Mountaire Farms, a poultry processing company based in Selbyville, Del., after the death of driver John Robert Short, 57, in an accident this weekend


To me, it‘s one of my worst nightmares - a personal horror show suddenly writ large in bold, ghastly type. This weekend, a truck driver lost his life when his tractor-trailer plunged 40 feet off the eastern span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, following a collision with two other vehicles.


I‘ve driven over this bridge on occasion for many, many years now, and it always gives me the chills. The eastern span (built for $45 million and opened in 1952 after three years of construction) and western span (completed in 1973 after four years of construction for $148 million) are both 4.3 miles long and rise to a high point of 186 feet above the dark waters of the bay. They can handle about 1,500 vehicles per lane per hour, with 27 million vehicles crossing both spans every year, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority, providing a key highway link for U.S. Route 50 that used to be served only by a nearly hour-long ferry ride.


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Rising up that high, watching big container ships shrink to the size of small boats, makes it hard to stick to the 55 mph speed limit on the bridge. I must throttle the urge to speed up, to get over those mammoth steel and concrete creations as fast as possible, lest some terrible coincidence of events push my vehicle over the side. Am I suffering from an overactive imagination? Probably. Still, just the thought of plunging over the edge of that bridge, heading for the inky darkness below, fills me with dread every time. Excessive speed can also be deadly on these narrow spans, so that helps me keep the throttle in check.


The most dangerous times to travel on the bridges - in my view - is when they open one of them to two-way traffic. That‘s when you are racing by cars and trucks with nothing but a thin double strip of yellow paint on one side and the water below on the other. They do that when maintenance needs to be done on one span, or to help improve the flow traffic heading to Maryland‘s and Delaware‘s beaches (between Memorial Day and Labor Day is when traffic volumes peak). Yet it‘s also the time of maximum danger, with traffic speeding by in tight confines.


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The crash that took John Short‘s life occurred during two-way traffic at 4 a.m. - a time when I used to travel by myself or with friends to the beach to avoid traffic jams. These days, I am hitting that bridge around 9 p.m. at night with my wife and kids asleep in the minivan - just as dark as 4 a.m., however, with all the risks that go with nighttime driving. That's why it's just heartrending to think of a trucker losing his life in a crash on the bridge for me -- and my prayers go out to his friends and family.


Early eye witness reports chronicled by the excellent Baltimore Sun newspaper indicate a Chevy Camaro crossed the yellow line and hit the oncoming rig driven by Short. That both driver and passenger in the Camaro survived (the passenger walked away and the driver is in the hospital in good condition, albeit with severe injuries) indicates to me that Short must have swerved enough to spare their lives. A Toyota Prius following the Camaro got hit as the big rig spun out of control, took out a 15 foot section of retaining wall, then plunged some 40 feet to the bay water below The crash happened at the eastern edge of the bridge, near Kent Island, where the water is only 10 or so feet deep.


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(The remains of John Short's tractor-trailer. Photo courtesy of necn.com)


What investigators eventually determine is the fault of the crash - and who is to blame - no one can say at the moment. It‘ll take time to sort everything out. The MTA shut down the eastern span of the bridge for the entire day in part to investigate the crash and to recover the tractor-trailer from the water, leading to 10-mile backups and a host of frayed tempers. None of that, of course, matters when a fatality and injuries must be dealt with.


I will say this, though - all my years spent driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge confirmed a saying that‘s been bandied about for many years: “familiarity breeds contempt.” I‘ve witnessed many drivers treat the bridge as just another strip of blacktop, flying over its length at high speed, swerving in and out of traffic, talking on cell phones, etc., without the slightest care in the world that we‘re 186 feet above about a fathom of water, with the danger of high winds ever-present.


It‘s become so commonplace, so taken for granted, these big engineering marvels that ease our travels, that we don‘t give the risks - speeding, distracted driving, abrupt lane changes - even a second thought.


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(There's little room for error as driving space is limited on the bay bridges.)


What‘s really sad is that it takes an accident like this to bring it all back into focus, the risks inherent to driving vehicles at high speeds on the roads. I wish people would take driving more seriously, especially over big bridges where there‘s no room for error. That brings to mind another old saying: “wishing won‘t make it so.” That‘s all too true of life on our highways today.

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