What's your clearance, Clarence? Truckers navigate tricky New York bridges

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 10/2/2012

Camera in hand, Marlaina Betnaza and husband Greg observe truck after truck passing beneath a bridge clearly marked as low-clearance. They wonder why the trucks – even a standard 13-feet-6-inch dry van – seem to be ignoring a sign warning of a 12-feet-2-inch clearance. Why would anyone take that chance? The obvious answer is “Welcome to New York.”

Trucking in the Empire State is not for amateurs, says Marlaina, a former resident who now calls Florida home. Leased owner-operators, Marlaina and Greg are quite familiar with the tangled web of aging infrastructure and low-clearance bridges that act as obstacles between points A and B.


A standard-sized truck gets ready to pass under a bridge clearly marked at 12 feet 2 inches. The truck made it just fine, but how is that possible? Photo courtesy of Marlaina Betnaza from the blog Life With No Fixed Address.

But even they have to stop and wonder why dry vans are passing under a bridge marked 16 inches below the standard truck height.

“If you’re not from the area, and you get confused, and you’re worried about a clearance, I think most drivers’ tendency is to go around,” Marlaina says.

But New York has a system within a system. According to a report prepared for the New York Department of Transportation, truck drivers “distrust posted clearances” because the state has a practice of marking bridges lower than they actually are. And over the years, truckers have picked up on the supposed buffer.

“It has been noted that truck drivers sometimes ignore the low vertical under-clearance sign because they believe that the actual clearance is higher than the posted one,” authors of the report on bridge strikes by trucks noted.

“In New York State, for all bridges with vertical clearance of 14 feet or less, posted clearance is 12 inches (1 foot) less than the actual clearance,” the authors continued. “However, this practice makes truck drivers distrust posted clearances. Placing both legal and actual vertical under-clearance of the bridge will help drivers understand the risks of hitting a bridge better while making a decision about stopping.”

But wait. Wasn’t the bridge that Marlaina and Greg were observing posted at least 16 inches below the actual height? Again, welcome to New York, where truckers and GPS are singled out for causing bridge strikes.

“It seems like a crazy system to me,” Marlaina tells Land Line, “And it bothers me that they blame drivers.”

In late September, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, called for the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a GPS standard for trucks. He said a standard would cut down on the number of trucks striking low-clearance bridges. The state has seen its share in recent years, as Schumer pointed to 43 strikes in the Long Island region alone.

Truckers who know the region get to know the roads, the bridges and the posted heights. They know which ones are OK and which ones are trouble.

Some bridges are posted in “actual” height instead of with the added buffer, so truckers need to be able to spot those if they’re going to run New York safetly.

“It’s just not set up for anybody that doesn’t happen to drive here every week,” she says. And it’s not the fault of the GPS, she adds.

“The GPS does not create data; the GPS is a data dump,” Marlaina says, meaning the data is only as good as what the state of New York provides to the Federal Highway Administration.

“Bottom line, New York needs to get real about the signs if it wants to stop trucks from hitting their bridges,” Marlaina says.

“We have the truck GPS, and it’s not infallible, but it knows how tall we are.”

Trouble is, the GPS does not tell them about the New York buffer, so drivers don’t know if the 12-feet-2-inch bridge is actually 12 feet 2, if it’s 13 feet 2, or some other height altogether.

Taking unnecessary chances is not in the game plain for Marlaina and Greg.

“In the end, if it doesn’t say 13 foot 6, we’re not going to do it because we don’t want anything to happen to our truck or our pristine driving record,” Marlaina says. “You have to believe the signs because that’s what’s there right in front of the bridge or the obstruction.”

She said it would be easier if all bridges were marked at actual height and that was the information submitted to the federal government in all states.

Marlaina has been a member of OOIDA for five years. She writes about trucking issues for a blog site titled “Life With No Fixed Address.” View her entry about the New York bridge issue here. Marlaina and Greg have been married for 10 years, together for 21.

See related story on the GPS issue:
Senator calls for GPS standards for trucks

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