The S-curve, also known as the “Yerba Buena Island Detour,” is the most significant realignment of the Bay Bridge since it opened in 1936. It changes two key features drivers had become accustomed to before the design change: a straightaway and a 50 mph speed limit. The S-curve forces drivers to adopt new habits, including slowing down to 40 mph for cars or 35 mph for trucks and heeding the curved lane lines. But even more disconcerting is the S-curve’s error tolerance of only 10 mph. Moderate speeders accustomed to zipping across the bridge at 60 mph will find themselves in danger of exceeding the error tolerance built into the bridge design.
In the wake of the crash last fall, Caltrans has struggled to provide adequate warnings to encourage drivers to slow down and to advise them of the unexpected change in conditions. The transportation agency has posted extra speed limit signs, pulled out the flashing lights, installed reflective striping on the barrier rails, and even brought in radar signs to remind drivers of their speed.
These warning measures have been effective in helping to reduce the unacceptable level of collisions caused by contact with the bridge as well as contact between vehicles who suddenly and unexpectedly fail to appreciate the fact and maintain their lane position.
The changes to the Bay Bridge came too late for those who have been injured by the poorly marked conditions. But the high profile nature of these collisions and the bridge project itself – illustrates how Caltrans and its engineers and design professionals need to analyze other construction projects to identify these hazards before another life is taken.
The people of California rely on Caltrans to provide safe roadways. Their taxes pay for the inspection or maintenance of the roadway system. Caltrans has adopted guidelines and mandates for design and signage. They need to follow their own advice and mandates for safety so that families crossing the Bay Bridge, and traveling on other highways in California make it home safely.
These considerations need to be undertaken by Caltrans before someone gets harmed. With their years of experience, and knowledge of driver behavior Caltrans has to adapt its design and signing projects to minimize the risk of injury. Responding after someone is harmed or killed is too little, too late.
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