New York, New York
New York transportation authorities and the State’s incomprehensible system for marking height clearance, not the GPS, are to blame when big trucks hit bridges in and around New York State.
We were jolted to attention by a Road Dog radio report that New York’s Senior Senator, Charles Schumer, is demanding an investigation into big trucks hitting bridges. Schumer blamed driver misuse of GPSs for the 43 incidents last year of trucks hitting bridges on Long Island. He wants “nation-wide standards” for GPSs.
Yes, trucks hit bridges. But the problem in New York is that transportation authorities force trucks off the actual, safe truck routes onto secondary routes because the State has chosen to post clearance signs that are wrong. The posted clearance is ONE foot less than the actual clearance. It is confusing. It is dangerous.
Three years ago, we spent $500 on a truck specific GPS, which accounts for our truck's height, width, weight and Hazardous Materials cargo. The GPS is a data dump, it absorbs information and provides routing based on information provided by the state. When a state puts out information that a clearance is 12 foot six inches, the GPS knows we are 13 foot six inches and works very hard, continually recalculating to force us off the route. The "misuse" of the GPS is by the nation's DOTs and state transportation authorities. It is they who need standards for safe, reliable signage so information fed into the GPS is accurate.
Even if the GPS is correct, when a driver sees a sign that says it is too low for the truck to fit under, true or not, the driver will believe the sign over the GPS.
The better, more immediate, fix is that the New York Department of Transportation start using accurate clearance signs. Currently GPS information ranges from lifesaving to helpful to destructive. It is no replacement, nor will it ever be a replacement, for directions provided by the location. Shippers and receivers, in the four years that we have been driving, have gone from providing directions to waving off drivers, saying, you have a GPS, washing their hands of the chore and the responsibility.
Modern big truck driving requires an Internet connection, a GPS, Google Maps, Google Street View and the Rand McNally truck atlas and that’s no guarantee of smooth passage.
New York authorities chose an implausible rationale, one used nowhere else in North America, in an industry designed and built on a transient workforce. Drivers not only come and go, the turnover rate is more than 100%, but drivers may be on the road for years before driving to New York.
New York is a land of bridges, tunnels, parkways and interstates. The parkways, largely designed as scenic routes, the first opened in 1929, have low, decorative stone bridges with clearance eleven feet or lower. The interstates accommodate big trucks with a height of 13 foot six inches and there are many in the state.
This industry has one standard drilled into drivers heads. Legal truck height for condo cabs, dry vans, moving vans, refrigerated vans and chassises with shipping containers is 13 feet six inches. Most trailers have a sticker which a driver sees every time she looks in the side mirror, known as the Westcoast mirror. Height 13 feet six inches. When we drive from California to Maine, from Washington to Florida, from Texas to Minnesota, we are alert for one sign, heights below 13 feet six inches. We took a shortcut in Indiana once and came upon a 13 foot four inch clearance, we had to back up and turn down another road.
But this is not the case in New York State and New York City where authorities have created a one-off system, only used here, which subtracts one foot from the real clearance.
This is, legend has it, to make drivers aware that the road surface, such as snow, fresh asphalt, could change the clearance and drivers must make adjustments. This is a land where there are few alternate routes. If I cannot go under the bridge in front of me, I have a serious problem. There is no place to turn around, streets are narrow and crowded with pedestrians.
Blaming the drivers relieves New York DOT of the expense -- new signs to fix the problem -- and responsibility. Up until recently, in the past two years, at the exit drivers MUST take to the Whitestone Bridge, heading West to New Jersey, from JFK Airport, the sign to the left said Grand Central Parkway and it had NO height warning, and to the right, the truck route to the Whitestone Bridge had a clearance sign that said 12’ 5”.
In a driver’s mind, at the crucial decision making point, the clearance sign takes precedence and she says "#%$ I can’t get under" and heads left to the parkway. The sign was recently changed to trucks OVER 10’ 5”, except the last time I took the route there was a second clearance sign below saying 12’ 1”, which may mean, and probably means, on the shoulder. In most states, they put on the sign, shoulder clearance 13 foot one inch.
The first thing a driver thinks when confronted with a clearance sign in New York is, Is that really 12 feet or is it 13 feet -- and we have a lot running through our minds, terrible road surface, traffic, weather, where’s the trailer -- and if it’s 13 feet one inch, then I still can’t fit underneath. Most truckers need 13 feet SIX inches. If it’s the shoulder clearance, hug the centerline.
On our delivery in July to JFK Airport, we crossed the Verrazano Bridge onto the BQE, we checked with our truck map, we checked with other drivers, who told us yes, we could stay on I-278, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge, driving on the Interstate, around, all the way to the airport. The straightforward route, the easier route, the route with no pedestrian traffic.
Except that there is a sign that says trucks higher than 12’ 2” MUST exit I-278 at Atlantic Avenue. We debated, traffic moved slowly, other big trucks were continuing on, was there something down there we didn’t know about, was this a recent construction change. And was it 12’ 2” or 13’ 2” even 13’ 2” isn’t enough for us, our tractor is 13 feet four inches high. Was the sign referring to an overpass or the shoulder?
We took the exit and drove, on the "designated truck route" through downtown Brooklyn, pedestrians jumping in front of us, unwilling to wait while we inched through the intersections, in front of the new arena, through the shopping areas. Why did they want us off the Interstate? We passed another bridge marked at 12’ 9”, another truck took it, he cleared, so we took it. That must really be 13 foot nine inches.
We stayed in Manhattan after the delivery and MacGyver rode the Vespa back to the BQE to photograph the signs and watched the 13 foot six inch trucks continue on past the MUST exit sign. Staying on the Intersate IS the safer route, he says, away from the pedestrians, the schools, the shopping.
On the load we just dropped in Quebec, we traveled through Vermont to the Canadian border crossing at Champlain, New York where there is another clearance sign in New York state. This one says ACTUAL clearance 14 foot 3 inches.
We'd bet money that the NY DOT was forced to hang an ACTUAL clearance sign because drivers thought they had to leave the Interstate, becoming confused about whether the clearance sign meant 13 foot three inches or 15 foot three inches, putting the truck onto a secondary route, where the driver hit a real low bridge.
New York State needs to change its policy in the interest of safety and long term savings to taxpayers.
Since GPSs only repeat information, the Federal Department of Transportation should make it mandatory that all jurisdictions update maps every quarter. If the maps and/or signs are inaccurate no standardization rules will change the situation. That of course is a cost to cities and states that were recently let off the hook on improving signage because of lack of funds.
And Mr. Schumer if you’re a fan of standardization in the name of safety, take some of that almost 4.5 cents a mile of tax that we pay in New York -- over and above the tolls and the federal fuel tax -- and change the New York exit signs to match the mile marker posts. Except in the northeast, the states have adopted this system, it’s safer, because drivers always know their location.
Go the real distance and persuade New York State to adopt Gridlock Sam's transportation plan that will take trucks going to JFK and Long Island across the Verrazano Bridge onto the Belt Parkway, which is currently not open to trucks, away from Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge and New York City. The current route is dangerous.
There are 25 million people in the Tri-State area, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that require a lot of big trucks to service their basic needs, food, clothing, furniture, cars, building products, shipping containers this is a problem that needs a solution.
July was our first trip to JFK since we left Forward Air in May, 2011. We watch the signs, we know our truck GPS is helpful but not infallible.
If we, the New York City truckers, didn’t know our way around, we might not have made it.