Durham’s ‘Can Opener’ bridge upgrade reduces frequency of crashes

Around noon on Dec. 13, Durham’s famed “Can Opener” bridge claimed another hapless victim, crunching through the roof of a Ryder rental truck that tried to pass beneath it, ripping off half the vehicle’s right side.

Signs warning of the 11-foot-8-inch tall bridge and a bright LED message that said “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” did not prevent the driver of the truck from barreling into the steel bar that protects the railroad bridge over Gregson Street.

Vehicles have been crashing into the bridge for decades. In May, the N.C. Department of Transportation installed a new laser-guided traffic signal at Gregson and Peabody streets to try to reduce the number of accidents, and DOT officials say that while the new system hasn’t eliminated the problem, it has helped.

The DOT is aware of two crash reports that have been filed since the new signal was put in place. A camera owned by Jurgen Henn, who records accidents at the bridge for his website,, has captured an additional four incidents or close shaves.

Before the new signal was installed, Henn’s camera captured a crash about every month.

“It’s about what we expected,” DOT spokesman Steve Abbott said. “Because you can’t eliminate the combination of inexperienced drivers, especially many of those driving the rental box trucks, and the unfamiliarity of conditions, such as truck height, we doubt it will be completely eliminated. We hope to simply cut the number down as low as possible.”

This is not DOT’s first attempt to alert truck drivers on Gregson Street. An older laser sensor triggered flashing yellow lights on a striped “OVERHEIGHT” warning sign at Peabody.

Now, when a too-tall truck interrupts a laser beam above Gregson Street, a signal is sent to the new traffic light 100 yards away at Peabody, turning it from green to yellow to red. That gives drivers an extra 50 seconds to realize they tripped the LED message that warns them to make a left or right turn before the bridge.

While Henn said he hasn’t noticed a significant improvement in the frequency of crashes with the new system, he thinks the new traffic light is making a difference. The trucks that still try to squeeze underneath are traveling at much slower speeds after being stopped at the light 50 feet in front of the bridge than if they were traveling 25 mph or faster.

“I think the bottom line is we just don’t know yet,” Henn said.

In a separate incident in December, a box truck got wedged underneath the bridge’s safety bar.

“After they spent a half hour deflating the truck’s tires, they finally managed to back the truck out from under the bridge,” Henn wrote on his website.

Warnings ‘only do so much’

Most of the trucks that have gotten clipped or had their whole top ripped off by the bridge over the years were rental trucks with inexperienced or distracted drivers, Abbott said.

“Driver behavior will almost always play a role in situations like this,” he said. “Warning systems can only do so much.”

Low railroad bridges in the Triangle are not uncommon because many were constructed when there were different minimum clearance standards. Others include the bridge over Peace Street in Raleigh and another on Roxboro Street in Durham, a few blocks from the “Can Opener” bridge.

When asked why he thought the “Can Opener” bridge had a better-known reputation, Henn said, “I guess it is my fault.”

“This is not a unique problem,” he said. “It’s just perhaps uniquely well-documented.”

Henn said he sees “at least three or four trucks every day turning onto Peabody Street to avoid the bridge.”

“Most of them – 99 point something percent of truck drivers are fine,” Henn said. “The rest – they might end up on my website.”

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon