11 Feet, 8 Inches: Infamous “Can Opener” Bridge Continues to Catch Trucks – 99% Invisible
Eleven foot eight dot com is an oddly specific domain with a correspondingly niche focus: the website revolves entirely around footage of a particular train bridge in North Carolina. This bridge has been nicknamed “the can opener” for its uncanny ability to regularly scrape the tops off of oncoming trucks. It has been involved in hundreds of accidents over recent years, despite what appear to be ample warning systems.
Located in Durham, the bridge was completed in 1940 and simply not designed to accommodate trucks above a certain height. Area resident Jürgen Henn noticed the high frequency of collisions and in 2008 decided to install a camera on a nearby building to document them. Since then, he has captured, edited and posted over 100 videos of collisions, mostly of amateur drivers in rental trucks or RVs.
The state, railroad and city have all considered or taken actions to reduce accidents involving the bridge. From the perspective of each party, the problem is as well-solved as it can be.
The state has prominently posted a pair of signs, flanking the street, that indicate the height limit of 11′ 8″ (a few inches less than the actual clearance). Clearly, though, these do little to prevent accidents.
By installing a crash beam to keep trucks from hitting the bridge itself, the railroad protects its infrastructure, freight and passengers. Their concern is not with trucks on the road but trains on the rails above.
The city has installed a supplemental array of warning mechanisms, including three “Low Clearance” signs posted at each of three intersections in advance of the bridge. Until recently, an “Overheight When Flashing” sign (with blinking orange lights) was also posted directly in front of the bridge. Trucks, however, continued to crash into the beam, so the sign was removed and a new strategy implemented.
An LED display was swapped in for the old combination of sign and lights. This display activates when attached sensors detect an oversize vehicle approaching. The sign sits alongside a new stoplight that is likewise tied into the sensor system. The light turns red to give truck drivers time to see the warning sign and consider their options. Despite even this latest sophisticated intervention, however, the bridge continues to claim and maim trucks.
Since no amount of warnings seems sufficient, other solutions have been considered and rejected, including: raising the bridge, lowering the street or redirecting truck traffic entirely. Unfortunately, raising the bridge would require a lot of money and regrading on both sides. Lowering the street is impractical because a sewer main runs below. Redirecting overheight traffic from the area entirely would be impractical, since many trucks need to approach the intersection then turn on the street running parallel to (but just before) the bridge.
In a way, the bridge represents a perfect storm of variables conspiring against a complete and permanent design solution. The railroad, state and city have all done what they can and called it a day.
What remains is a flawed piece of infrastructure that exists in a sort of bureaucratic void. It seems to be waiting for either an extreme event or someone to come along with an ingenious alternative solution.
Meanwhile, 11foot8 continues to dutifully document the bridge, which, like numerous other too-low overpasses around the world, seems unlikely to stop causing accidents anytime soon.
[Most of the trucks in the video are rentals. Most truck renters are not use to driving a truck and do think about the height of the vehicle. This road is very close to Duke University (less than 4 blocks from East Campus) so there are a lot of people moving in and out.]