Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: New guardrails might make old Durham bridge less deadly

Tamela Davis in December visits the bridge where her son, Merrill, died last October in a car accident.
Tamela Davis in December visits the bridge where her son, Merrill, died last October in a car accident. 2012 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

One year after Merrill Davis died in a fiery crash at a scary, narrow bridge on N.C. 751, the state Department of Transportation is preparing to install guardrails that might have stopped his car from bouncing off the bridge rail that night and falling to the railroad tracks below.

Davis’ mother believes the guardrails will make it safer. But she’ll keep pushing DOT to replace the 83-year-old bridge.

“It’s not just because of my child,” said Tamela Davis, 66, of Durham, an elementary school art teacher. “It’s dangerous for every driver that goes across it.

“Two cars can pass, but just barely. There’s no wiggle room on that bridge. You see skid marks from cars that have scraped against the bridge because it is so narrow.”

N.C. 751 curves through Duke Forest and climbs to cross the bridge, built high over two railroad tracks in rural Orange County. The shoulder falls away before the highway reaches the bridge. The road width shrinks from 20 feet on either side to 18 feet on the bridge itself.

Because it is at the crest of a hill, drivers cannot see each other as they approach the bridge from opposite sides. There is no room for error and little time to react to danger.

Merrill Davis’s accident

Merrill Davis, 34, was driving home the night of Oct. 14, 2012. An oncoming driver said later she had just come off the bridge when she saw Davis drift into her lane as he climbed the hill toward her. The two cars avoided collision but clipped each other’s mirrors.

Davis lost control. His SUV struck the end of the concrete bridge rail, plunged down the bank and caught fire.

It was the sixth collision since 2007 at a bridge that handles fewer than 5,000 cars and trucks each day. Several crashes involved one car crossing the center line as it approached another.

After Davis died, DOT engineers studied the bridge and considered their options. They ruled out building a modern, wider structure that might be designed so that drivers on N.C. 751 can see each other.

This bridge is rated as “functionally obsolete” because it is too narrow by modern standards, but it does not qualify for federal funding to cover 80 percent of the replacement cost. DOT inspectors scrutinize 13,500 bridges across the state every two years, and they regard this one – built in 1930 – as structurally sound.

“It can handle any legal load going across it,” said Tim Powers, bridge program manager for DOT’s Division Seven, which includes Orange County. “They built it to stay, and this one is staying.”

Officials came up with a plan to install heavy-gauge steel guardrails on both sides of the road, for drivers coming from both directions, augmented with an extra set of “Narrow Bridge” warning signs. The Board of Transportation approved the work at its October meeting, and construction could be finished by mid-November.

‘Recipe for disaster’

The Highway Patrol responded to a seventh accident there on a rainy afternoon in August. A Person County man told the trooper he swerved to dodge another car that had crossed the center line on the bridge. He avoided running off the pavement before his minivan hit the side rail, swerved across the bridge and ended up in a ditch, with damage estimated at $7,000.

That driver was going the speed limit, 55 mph, as Davis had been the night he died last October. DOT traffic engineers have decided against lowering the limit to 45 mph. Tamela Davis thinks they should reconsider.

“People come through Duke Forest, and they fly through here,” Davis said. “You combine that with a blind approach from either side. It’s narrower than the road, with soft shoulders and steep banks. That’s a recipe for disaster every day. My misfortune was to lose my child at that bridge, and my mission is going to be to get it replaced.”

The new guardrails will reach out from the gray bridge like two pairs of silver wings. Powers says they’ll help drivers avoid running off the road. But even though other DOT engineers opted not to change the speed limit, he hopes drivers will slow down.

“It’s still going to be a narrow bridge,” Powers said. “The public needs to be cautious and drive slower in that area.”

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