In Philly suburbs, truck drivers - often using GPS apps - smash into bridges, causing accidents and snarling traffic

A truck passes under the Flourtown Road Railroad Bridge in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Two Conshohocken women were killed when a concrete truck slammed into this bridge and crushed the women's car. A few years ago, when officials raised the height of the bridge. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

One morning in November 2002, a concrete truck plowed into a railroad bridge on Flourtown Road, crushing a car and killing two women inside.

For decades, before and after that tragedy, that Norfolk Southern bridge in Whitemarsh Township was struck multiple times a month.

“That thing had a bull’s-eye on it,” said Rick Stemple, a traffic safety officer with the Whitemarsh Township Police.

That is, until 2016, when Norfolk Southern raised the bridge by nearly two feet, all but eliminating traffic accidents and delays there.

Accidents there “happened all the time,” said Jim Smith, 52, of nearby Lafayette Hill, who used to take that route to work. But since the bridge project, he said, “it’s been great.”

In Radnor, as the Inquirer and Daily News reported in December, one bridge on King of Prussia Road has been struck by trucks at least 43 times in the last decade, leaving township officials scrambling for solutions. Now, the township has declared the bridge “a continuing safety hazard” and is considering a sensor-activated warning system to reduce crashes.

Camera icon Phoenixville Police Department
A truck stuck under the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge at North Main Street and Vanderslice Street in Phoenixville.

But readers say these hazards aren’t confined to Radnor. In emails and on a public survey posted to Philly.com, folks identified problematic bridges from Phoenixville to Feasterville to West Chester. Across the Philadelphia suburbs, they said, trucks are slamming into these overpasses, posing concerns about safety and traffic congestion. It is a problem that puts police departments in a bind. There often isn’t much that towns can do, especially in places where railroad companies own these bridges.

Officials from PennDOT said they did not know whether there had been an increase in strikes or an increase in trucks cutting through the suburbs. However, they said, truck drivers may be paying less attention to the roadways, more distracted than ever by smartphones, and blindly following GPS.

Kevin Stewart, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said he, too, didn’t know whether more trucks have been cutting through Philadelphia’s collar counties. But in recent years, the PMTA has been working statewide to address an increased reliance on turn-by-turn GPS apps, which are not designed for truck drivers and therefore do not warn of low-clearance bridges.

Truck-specific GPS exists, Stewart said, but it comes at a price.

“I can download Waze for nothing,” Stewart said, so “you see more and more smartphones.”

For decades, box trucks and tractor-trailers have been crashing into an abandoned Norfolk Southern bridge near North Main Street and Vanderslice Street in Phoenixville, police said.

“I can’t definitively say there’s been an increase,” Phoenixville Sgt. Joe Nemic said. “To me, it’s been a steady problem over the years.”

How have Phoenixville residents been affected?

“Months-long rerouted commutes and backed-up traffic all throughout the Phoenixville Borough area,” said Dave Strunk, 47.

Kathleen Iacobucci, 58, said she, too, has been repeatedly rerouted around the bridge and delayed.

Since January 2015, there have been 15 accidents involving trucks getting stuck under the 10-foot-4-inch overpass, and six requests for officers to assist trucks in backing up after the drivers realize they can’t fit, Nemic said. (He said these numbers do not account for officers who stumble upon drivers in need of assistance or for accidents from which motorists can drive away without police assistance.)

Years ago, Nemic said, he suggested installing a contraption that would cause over-height trucks to run into hanging tubes before smacking the bridge. The idea went nowhere, he said.

“The ongoing argument is: Is it a municipality problem or is it a Norfolk Southern problem?” Nemic said.

Camera icon Phoenixville Police
A truck stuck under the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge at North Main Street and Vanderslice Street in Phoenixville.

For its part, Norfolk Southern said in a statement that it is reviewing a proposal from Phoenixville that involves raising the bridge. Although the rail line is out of service, a Norfolk Southern spokesman said, it may be reactivated in the future. If the approval is granted, Phoenixville would have to pay for the raising of the bridge, he said.

Readers from across Delaware, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties suggested all kinds of solutions, including raising bridges, lowering roadways, and installing sensor detection systems in front of overpasses.

Raising bridges can be a significant investment, PennDOT officials said. But they said they have achieved success in lowering roads (in Chester, Morton Avenue is in the process of being lowered), but they can go only so low.

Camera icon Radnor Police Department
One of the 43 bridge strikes that have occurred under the King of Prussia Road bridge since 2008.

How about vehicle-detection systems, such as the one Radnor has been debating?

“These kinds of systems rely on doing the same things the signs do: warning drivers,” said Manny Anastiasiadis, senior manager for traffic operations at PennDOT. Drivers, he said, need to make smart decisions and pay attention to low-clearance signage.

PMTA also can’t do much more to prevent these accidents, Stewart said.

On social media, the association will continue urging motorists to invest in GPS systems designed specifically for professional truck and bus drivers and linking to public service announcements from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Stewart said. On the national level, the FMCSA advocates for using specialized GPS and warns against distracted driving by truck drivers.

“It’s really coming down a lot to these individual drivers,” Stewart said.

“There’s really no excuse,” said Stemple of Whitemarsh police. The drivers often say “they’re following GPS. [But] if there was a cliff, would you drive off it?’

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Cars and trucks pass under the Flourtown Road Railroad Bridge in Plymouth Meeting. Two Conshohocken women were killed when a concrete truck slammed into this bridge and crushed their car.