Last weeks deadly bridge accident was a unique tragedy in the sense that every collision comes with its own set of circumstances. Yet it is worth considering whether there are any broader lessons to be learned and steps that might help minimize future risks.
Serious accidents are not uncommon on the Astoria Bridge, despite the fact it is mostly straight and level. In addition to the one last week, informal research finds fatalities on this bridge in 2009, 2005, 2001 and a fiery crash that took multiple lives in the late 1990s.
More recently, there have been a series of head-on collisions that did not cause immediate loss of life in March 2010, September 2010 and February 2011. All these were the result of people inadvertently crossing the centerline. That no one died at the scene in those wrecks is mostly likely a tribute to modern vehicle designs and air bags. But injuries resulted in enormous personal suffering and expense.
Past accidents have brought calls to prohibit passing or to lower the speed limit. However, passing drivers failing to return to their own lane in time does not appear to be a common theme in the wrecks. Instead, drivers who are distracted, sleepy or impaired wander from their own lane. The driver in the oncoming vehicle is left in the nightmarish position of having nowhere to go.
One possible safety measure that might not be dauntingly expensive would be to adopt rumble strips that Washington state has implemented statewide. These slight depressions ground into the center of highways emit a loud, vibrating signal when tires go over them. Some find them annoying, but they are very good at signaling your vehicle is departing from its assigned lane.
Highway engineers may have other good ideas. They should present them. There is a steady drumbeat of awful collisions on a bridge that does not present many inherent dangers. We must do what we can to avoid tragedies.