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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - For years, drivers in over height vehicles have become stuck underneath a low clearance viaduct. Often, their precious cargo is left scattered across the pavement and their trailer becomes buckled from the pressure above. The impact leaves steel support beams bent and scars of knocked-out concrete.
The Norfolk Southern viaduct at 3rd Street and Eastern Parkway decapitates tall trucks in a violent can-opener-type crash. We investigated the trouble spot to see how many impacts the bridge can take until there's a worst-case scenario like a train derailment.
Countless crashes have occurred at the site in recent years. Louisville Metro Police responded to at least 30 incidents in 2012 - and those only include the impacts called into MetroSafe.
In one incident, a trail of torn off sheet metal and cargo led to another wrong turn. An out-of-state trailer collapsed and its roof peeled off after attempting to drive underneath the 11-foot and 8-inch high rail bridge.
During an inspection with Norfolk Southern's bridge supervisor Ian Krispin, he referenced several cracks and damaged portions of the foundation.
"Those are tell-tale signs something had impacted it," Krispin said. He's often the one notified when an accident or impact occurs.
Even Krispin admits, speed and a heavy load could knock, what's called a through-girder open deck bridge, off its bearings.
"For instance, they're doing a lot of construction on campus," said Krispin. "If one of the companies brought a large dozer or something that is a solid piece of equipment, there's a good chance it may disrupt the bearings."
We asked Krispin if a heavy impact could derail an oncoming train.
"It could," said Krispin. "It puts our company at risk. It puts the public at risk. And such a high traffic area, there's no telling what could happen."
Krispin told us the most common answer they get from drivers involved in crashes with the overpass is "I thought I could've made it."
The low clearance shouldn't be a surprise. An electronic sign on Eastern Parkway warns oncoming traffic. In addition, there are three low-clearance warning signs on 3rd Street and there's signage at the intersection. So why would any driver put their career on the line? David Flotron, safety director for Pegasus Transportation, estimates an impact could cause tens of thousands in damage and ultimately - their job.
"There's no excuse for a driver to proceed through a low-clearance bridge or viaduct. They're trained. Or at least should be trained to always be familiar with your surroundings and research the route before leaving," Flotron said. "That being said, the signage could be improved along Eastern Parkway."
WAVE 3 hitched a ride with driver Bryan Blair to gauge his perspective. "Sure, there's warning signs on (Eastern), but it does not say the clearance of the bridge," Blair said.
Blair referenced a sign on Eastern Parkway that illuminates from a sensor: 'Over height, turn right.'
"Sure, it tells us we're over height, but a driver from out of town may not know just what 'over height' means until it's too late," Blair said.
It's not until drivers arrive to the 3rd and Eastern Parkway intersection that a sign provides a specific clearance.
"If I wouldn't have known this area, I probably would've made that turn. And then I would've been stuck," Blair said.
It doesn't take a civil engineer to notice the damage after a semi becomes stuck, but WAVE 3 consulted with University of Louisville's Endowed Chair in Civil Infrastructure at the J. B. Speed School of Engineering.
"There are pieces of the bridge that are bent," said Professor Mark McGinley, PhD. "however, that is not cause for concern right now. The sections of bridge in there are very stiff and very strong. The impacts that trucks are hitting it with are relatively small compared to the strength found it in the bridge."
McGinley said excavating pavement at the intersection to increase clearance is not a viable solution. "The area will flood out. Digging it out will exacerbate that particular problem."
Instead, McGinley suggests since unwitting drivers are ignoring warning signs tractor-trailers shouldn't be allowed in the area.
"It is not a major thoroughfare," said McGinley. "We have to simply take those kind of vehicles off that road and I think that's the simplest, cheapest and most economic solution."
Until then, a viaduct will continue to whittle too-tall trucks down to 11-foot 8-inches.