It’s become a familiar sight to those who regularly travel Onondaga Lake Parkway: a tractor-trailer wedged under the 10’9” CSX railroad bridge over Route 370 between Route 81 and the village of Liverpool.
On Tuesday, March 4, a 13’9” truck driven by An B. Zhang, 40, of San Jose, struck the underside of the bridge, despite numerous signs alerting drivers to the low clearance, as well as a one-of-a-kind detection system installed in 2011 that sent out alarms alerting him to turn around. Zhang, who speaks Mandarin, said he didn’t understand the signs due to the language barrier.
This isn’t the first accident since the system was installed. Another tractor-trailer hit the bridge in December of 2013. The driver, 33 year-old Waleed Sleit of Chicago, said he didn’t see the numerous signs regarding the bridge’s height.
Fortunately, no one was hurt in either instance, but it has some people asking: does the over-height detection system work?
The state installed the $300,000 over-height vehicle detection system in the fall of 2011 in the wake of a Megabus crash in which the bus’s driver, following his personal GPS, hit the bridge, killing four people and injuring nearly 30 more. The system consists of a laser projector and receiver mounted on opposite sides of the Parkway, vehicle-presence detectors placed in each lane of the roadbed and two dynamic electronic message signs. If a vehicle more than 11 feet high interrupts the laser beams while passing over the pavement detectors, the roadside dynamic message signs will flash a message to the driver to stop before the bridge, and a buzzer also sounds. The system will also automatically send a message to the state Department of Transportation’s Traffic Management Center, which will then notify Onondaga County’s 911 Center so that law enforcement can be dispatched to assist the driver in turning the vehicle around.
There is also a ban on commercial vehicles on the Parkway, also enacted in late 2011. “No Commercial Vehicles” signs are visible at all approaches to the Parkway, including I-81 and Park Street in the city of Syracuse, and Oswego Street in the village of Liverpool. Drivers of all vehicles with commercial license plates on these approaches are directed to use Old Liverpool Road as a bypass. Drivers in commercial vehicles making deliveries to sites along the parkway are permitted to enter the road, but they can’t travel its length.
According to the New York State Department of Transportation, the commercial vehicle ban came as a result of traffic analysis, meetings with local officials and a public comment period.
Despite these high-profile accidents, Gene Cilento, public information officer for the New York State Department of Transportation, said the over-height detection system is fully functional.
“The system works, but it doesn’t physically stop people,” Cilento said. “It requires drivers to notice their surroundings and heed the warnings.”
Cilento said the system has gone off a total of 561 times between the time it was installed and Aug. 29, 2013, which was the last date for which he had data. Those triggers break down as follows: 67 tests, 165 verified over-height vehicles, 124 allowances — garbage trucks and deliveries going to other locations along the Parkway — and just over 200 that weren’t seen by the system’s cameras. Cilento said those could be birds or other objects flying in the path of the lasers.
Cilento said he had trouble believing Zhang’s reasoning for hitting the bridge, as there are numerous signs in addition to the blaring sirens and lights put off by the over-height detection system.
“I don’t buy the language barrier thing,” Cilento said. “It says 10’9” all over the place. I don’t see that as a valid excuse. And the system does work. It was checked after the accident and found to be working correctly.”
Cilento said there’s nothing more the state can do to prevent over-height trucks from hitting the bridge.
“CSX owns the bridge. It was there before the road. We can’t force them to move the bridge, and we can’t lower the road, because as it is, it’s about even with the level of the lake,” he said. “We’ve put up a number of signs. Those, along with the [over-height] detection system, should alert drivers. But if drivers aren’t paying attention, it’s not going to help. Every once in a while, someone will still hit it.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.