Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Smile, tall trucks, you're on can't-read camera

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 12, 2012 

— If you’re paying attention this week when you drive that tall truck down South Gregson Street, you’ll get fair warning about the low bridge ahead.

A series of yellow diamond signs, starting a block in advance, will tell you about the 11-foot, 8-inch clearance.

Then the yellow lights will go crazy, the ones with an overhead sign that says: OVERHEIGHT WHEN FLASHING.

You’ll have one last chance to escape disaster. You can turn onto Peabody Street, just before Gregson runs beneath the railroad bridge that carries freight and passenger trains across downtown Durham.

But if you’re not paying attention – you dummy! – you’ll make plenty of noise as you crash into that low bridge. It will peel the roof off your moving van. It will scatter the hay bales or building supplies stacked much too high on your flatbed.

It might leave your box truck wedged beneath the overpass. The tow-truck driver will have to deflate your tires before he can haul your sorry self away.

And here’s the good news for the rest of us: Your cartoon-clumsy blunder will be immortalized as Crash #59 on Jürgen Henn’s video website,

Thanks to frequent notice from media websites across the United States and Europe, your antics will entertain TV viewers and web surfers around the world.

Henn manages the computers for a Duke University research lab housed in second-floor offices at Brightleaf Square, with windows overlooking Peabody and the low bridge. He started recording the Gregson overpass crashes in spring 2008 to answer a simple question.

“We could not agree on how often these crashes actually happened,” Henn, 44, said Monday over coffee at a nearby cafe. “Every time we heard one, the whole building would empty, and we’d all go out and go gawking. And we would discuss how often this happened. Was it every five weeks or so? Every week?”

The answer, he discovered, is about once a month.

Police files are incomplete, partly because some drivers manage to get away before an officer arrives. A Durham police spokeswoman found records of 32 crashes at the Gregson overpass over the past four years. There’s an even lower bridge a few blocks away – clearing Roxboro Street by just 11 feet, 4 inches – with 29 crashes on file during the same period.

Trucks also get hung up sometimes at an 11-foot, 8-inch overpass at the foot of Durham’s Ninth Street, and a 12-foot, 4 inch overpass on Raleigh’s Peace Street.

Internet favorite

Thanks to Henn’s twin video cameras, it’s the Gregson crashes that we all get to watch. Crash #58, recorded Oct. 29, features a close call for a Carolina Classic Transport moving van that gets away with half a roof.

Sometimes Henn adds music to the video. The BBC recently aired a comic montage assembled by one of Henn’s admirers, set to the heroic theme from “Rocky.”

Injuries are almost nonexistent – Henn did hear once about a broken leg in a crash that predated his video operation – so it’s easy to laugh at what he calls the “can-opener bridge.”

The crashes often involve a moving van or a rented box truck – lots of hapless Penskes and Ryders here – with an unfamiliar driver at the wheel. Usually it’s a lightweight aluminum frame that gets damaged. But sometimes heavy steel is involved.

An industrial garbage compactor on a flatbed trailer struck the bridge so hard in 2002 that it damaged the trestle, halting railroad operations for two days of repair. The impact pushed the compactor off the truck – and it compacted the front half of a Chrysler Sebring.

To shield its tracks from future damage, Norfolk Southern Railroad erected a heavy-gauge steel I-beam exactly 11 feet, 8 inches above Gregson Street to absorb the blows and protect the bridge.

The crash beam was replaced a few years ago after it was warped by a blow from a heavy construction crane. The one there now is bowed and battered.

Why all these crashes? Henn blames heavy, fast traffic on South Gregson. It’s two lanes, one-way, with drivers routinely ignoring the 25 mph speed limit.

“If you come hurtling down Gregson at 45 mph in a big truck that you’re not used to driving anyway, yeah, there’s a good chance you’re going to overlook that 11-foot-8 sign and the flashing lights,” he said.

State standards require a 14-foot, 6 inch clearance for new bridges, with height warnings posted for older ones that aren’t that high. Since the occasional crashes on Gregson do not include serious injuries, state and local transportation officials have not considered the low overpass to be a high-priority problem.

Tall trucks rumble down Gregson every day, and the “overheight” lights start flashing, usually without incident. Frequently it’s a regular delivery truck that turns onto Peabody – left for Morgan Imports, right for Brightleaf. And sometimes it’s a lucky driver who narrowly avoids an unwanted performance on Henn’s candid cameras.

Henn hears occasionally from trucker-safety instructors who thank him for his entertaining and instructive videos. He has answered the question that launched his video website four and a half years ago, but he’s not ready to quit.

“Meanwhile, I keep filming, and I try to educate people,” Henn said. “And occasionally, I admit, I get a chuckle out of it, too.”

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