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Is GPS at fault for repeated Glenville railroad bridge accidents?

Is GPS at fault for repeated Glenville railroad bridge accidents?

In a bizarre turn of events, a second tractor-trailer hit a low railroad overpass in Glenville Mo...
Is GPS at fault for repeated Glenville railroad bridge accidents?
Glenville Police officers question a trucker from Quebec City failed to negotiate the height limitation of a railroad bridge on Maple Avenue and ripped the entire top of the trailer completely off on Monday. No injuries were reported. Officials from CR...
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

In a bizarre turn of events, a second tractor-trailer hit a low railroad overpass in Glenville Monday evening, just hours after a similar incident at the rail bridge on Glenridge Road.

The incident, which happened at about 6:30 p.m. at the 10-foot-clearance Maple Avenue bridge, did far more damage to the truck involved than the earlier incident, causing the trailer top to fold.

The two accidents, which didn't involve injuries, renewed existing questions about why tractor-trailers are hitting the local railroad bridges - admittedly low-clearance ones - more often.

[Glenville bridge struck again by tractor trailer]

Quite possibly, the drivers were relying on navigation GPS devices that didn't include low-bridge warnings, officials believe.

"I'm at a loss," said Glenville Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle. "It just seems to be that people are coming through and not paying attention because they're looking at their GPS."

It is not clear whether GPS - the common acronym for global positioning systems - are actually at fault in either case, but basic GPS systems do not include such information as low-bridge warnings.

Federal highway standards require bridges to have at least 13'6" clearance for truck safety, but old railroad bridges on local road systems often fall short of that standard.

On both Glenridge Road and Maple Avenue there are multiple warning signs about the low-height overpass ahead. Koetzle said adding more warning signs is unlikely to help.

The Glenridge Road bridge, which has a clearance of 10'11", has been struck at least 20 times since a road-widening project was finished in 2013, with the tops sometimes being peeled off the trucks.

The Maple Avenue bridge, which has a narrow width as well as a clearance of only 10 feet, doesn't have a prior record of being struck. The truck that hit it suffered serious damage that required closing down Maple Avenue during the evening commuting hours.

"I'm told by people who were there that the GPS were active," Koetzle said. "People have to understand where the low bridges are if they are going to drive professionally. [Police Chief Stephen Janik] was shocked; he said they just seem to be following the GPS blindly."

Neither trucking company involved in Monday's incidents - one based in Texas, the other based in Quebec - was willing to comment on what had happened when contacted on Tuesday.

But a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration confirmed that there is a known problem with truckers using inadequate GPS systems that lead them to hit obstructions like bridges.

"The fact they may be using non-professional GPS systems may be the dynamic in play," said spokesman Duane DeBruyne. "As of January 2013 we developed a visor card that advised drivers to use professional-grade GPS so you are aware of things like low clearances."

He said the FMCSA issues periodic reminders to the industry about relying on inadequate GPS systems, including using social media platforms like Facebook. A professional-grade system accepts information on a vehicle's height and weight before establishing a route, and considers height and weight restrictions on roads.

"We are aware and we continue to be aware - we have been for a number of years - of a dynamic of drivers not using professional grade GPSs," DeBruyne said.

A spokesman for CP Rail, which owns the bridges, couldn't say whether truck strikes are occurring more frequently.

Railroad spokesman Andy Cummings said bridges are routinely closed to rail traffic after such incidents until a railroad inspector can determine whether the bridges are still safe.

"We can confirm the bridges were found to be safe and train traffic resumed following inspections in both cases," Cummings said.

Even before Monday, town officials were saying the Glenridge Road bridge was being hit by trucks too often.

“It’s happened too many times,” Koetzle said on Monday, before the Maple Avenue crash occurred. “I’ve been on the phone with the railroad before and I’ll be on the phone with them again. There has to be something more that can be done.”

State Department of Transportation spokesman Bryan Viggiani said there are proper warnings in place on Glenridge Road, if truckers heed them.

“Whether the driver is looking at GPS or at Google Maps at home when they plan their route, the bottom line is every motorist is responsible for following the signs," Viggiani said.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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