Cover Story
What’s your clearance, Clarence?
Truckers have trust issues when it comes to bridge heights

By David Tanner, associate editor

Camera in hand, Marlaina Betnaza and husband Greg observe truck after truck passing beneath a bridge clearly marked as low-clearance. They wonder why the trucks – even a standard 13-foot-6-inch dry van – seem to be ignoring a sign warning of a 12-foot-2-inch clearance. Why would anyone take that chance? The obvious answer is “Welcome to New York.”

Trucking in the Empire State is not for amateurs, says Marlaina, a former resident who now calls Florida home. Leased owner-operators, Marlaina and Greg are quite familiar with the tangled web of aging infrastructure and low-clearance bridges that act as obstacles between points A and B.

“If you’re not from the area, and you get confused and are worried about a clearance, I think most drivers’ tendency is to go around,” Marlaina says.

New York has a system within a system, adding to the confusion. According to a report prepared for the New York Department of Transportation, truck drivers don’t trust the signs because the state has a practice of marking bridges lower than they actually are.

"Taking a wild guess, I would venture to say that 95 percent of bridges In New York are mismarked." – D.W. Marsh, Grayson, GA

“It has been noted that truck drivers sometimes ignore the low vertical under-clearance sign because they believe that the actual clearance is higher than the posted one,” authors of the report on bridge strikes by trucks noted.

“In New York State, for all bridges with vertical clearance of 14 feet or less, posted clearance is 12 inches (1 foot) less than the actual clearance,” the authors continued. “However, this practice makes truck drivers distrust posted clearances. Placing both legal and actual vertical under-clearance of the bridge will help drivers understand the risks of hitting a bridge better while making a decision about stopping.”

But wait. Wasn’t the bridge that Marlaina and Greg were observing posted at least 16 inches below the actual height? Again, welcome to New York, where some bridges are posted a foot lower than they actually are, some are posted 16 inches below their actual height, and still others are posted as “actual” heights. The actual heights are supposed to be marked as “actual” on the signage.

“It seems like a crazy system to me,” Marlaina tells Land Line, “And it bothers me that they blame drivers.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
An attempt to be cautious about passing under a bridge backfired for a group of out-of-state truckers in October in Livingston County, NY.

According to The Associated Press, three trucks stopped on Route 63 in York to check the height of a bridge overpass. The passenger of one of the stopped trucks, 24-year-old Jabril Jama of Seattle, was struck by a southbound minivan. Jama was treated for head trauma and a broken leg according to the report.

The incident is a prime example of truckers being “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” when trying to navigate New York infrastructure.

"There is no way to know when 13-6 is really 13-6. Last trip into the city I told the company I would never go back and I didn't – Edd Proft, Elephant Butte, NM

Just a few weeks before the incident, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, came out with a call for a federal GPS standard for trucks. He said a standard would cut down on the number of trucks striking low-clearance bridges. During a press event, Schumer pointed to 43 strikes in the Long Island region alone.

A report that Schumer cites to back up his call for a GPS standard reveals that as many as 80 percent of truck strikes on low-clearance bridges involved the use – or misuse – of GPS devices that routed trucks onto parkways, with a majority being from out-of-state.

But the report said much more than that. In some cases, a posted warning sign was inadequate or placed too close to the bridge to make a difference to the trucker.

“By the time a truck driver sees these signs, it is already too late for them to stop,” the report authors noted, adding that warnings in some areas were “hardly visible” during the night.

Another portion of the study said a Kensington Expressway bridge with a clearance of 14 feet, 10 inches – a height that should not pose a problem for most trucks – was hit somewhat frequently “as a result of trucks bouncing on a bump on the road under the bridge.”

The report, prepared for the New York State Department of Transportation, noted that many drivers were simply not aware of their vehicle dimensions.

“It seems that a majority of drivers entering parkways and hitting bridges aren’t aware of the height of their truck with the cargo,” the authors stated.

" 'Course there is also the (good) possibility that you may run into another low overpass on the route you select for your detour." – OOIDA Life Member Dave Snellings, Crofton, MD

Take the guesswork out of it
Truckers say it would be easiest if all bridges were posted as they actually are and reposted when pavement conditions change or repairs are made. That way a trucker can be better prepared to make decisions.

“Upstate is full of mismarked bridges,” OOIDA Life Member Paul Sansoucy, Carroll, OH, says by correspondence. “The intent most of the time is to keep long-haul trucks out of a region or off certain roads. … They post bridges with weight limits to accomplish the same thing. Life is complicated enough.”

Truckers corresponding about the bridge-height issue say it’s not the fault of the GPS or the trucker; it’s the quality of data the states provide to the Federal Highway Administration.

“The GPS does not create data; the GPS is a data dump,” Marlaina Betnaza says.

I'd have preferred to see the government first require their own agencies to collect and maintain accurate clearance data. Then it would be relatively trivial for these GPS providers to collect and use that data correctly." – Jon McGuire, AAC-Fleet Trucks & Trailers, Jacksonville, FL

"I see nothing has changed in New York since I started driving in 1966. With New York, the state always high expenses and this kind of useless information. Nothing had changed when I retired in 1997." – OOIDA Life Member Don Richardson, Shelbyville, IN

“Bottom line, New York needs to get real about the signs if it wants to stop trucks from hitting their bridges,” she adds. “We have the truck GPS, and it’s not infallible, but it knows how tall we are.”

The GPS doesn’t attempt to predict or distinguish the New York “buffer,” so drivers may still end up guessing whether a 12-foot-2-inch bridge is actually 12 feet 2 inches or some other height.

Taking unnecessary chances is not in the game plan for Marlaina and Greg.

“In the end, if it doesn’t say 13 foot 6, we’re not going to do it because we don’t want anything to happen to our truck or our pristine driving record,” Marlaina says. “You have to believe the signs because that’s what’s there right in front of the bridge or the obstruction.”

Editor’s note: Marlaina Betnaza has been a member of OOIDA for five years. She writes about trucking issues for a blog site titled “Life With No Fixed Address.”