What Causes a Bridge Collapse?

Most people don’t think about the number or condition of the bridges they cross every day on their commute, but they're far more crucial in safety and practicality. Bridges are vital components of transportation that carry road and rail traffic across bodies of water, gorges, overpasses, and other roads. When a bridge collapses, it can cause massive traffic problems or strand people altogether, cutting of crucial services. Worse yet, those who are passing the bridge when it collapses can be seriously hurt or killed.

Common Causes of Bridge Collapse

With approximately 607,000 bridges in the United States, over 11% of those bridges were deemed structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) in 2012. With this alarming statistic looming, there are many factors that can contribute to a bridge collapse including:

Design Defect - These are bridges whose collapse is inevitable before the first vehicle traverses it. The fault lies not with the construction of the bridge, but the design itself. One of the worst bridge collapses in U.S. history occurred in 1981 as the result of a design defect when the crowded walkways of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel collapsed, crashing onto the walkway which was directly below it before falling into the lobby. The collapse killed 114 people and was caused by a design defect in which structures where carrying double the loads they were intended to.

Fires – No amount of well thought out design plans or expertly executed construction can help a bridge that suffers a serious fire. Bridges most susceptible to collapse because of fire are those that carry trains, given the combustible materials used to power them. Several modern bridges have collapsed or been severely damaged due to fire. One such example happened in 2009 when a tanker truck near Detroit suddenly burst into flames directly under a bridge. The resulting inferno collapsed the bridge completely and forced the closing of the highway.

Boat Impact – Given that many bridges provide passage over water, many boats pass underneath them. While boats don’t usually move as fast as trains or passenger vehicles, they are large in mass which can spell disaster if they collide with the structure of a bridge. The Judge William Seeber Bridge in New Orleans suffered such a collapse from boat impact in 1993. A barge passing under struck a pier supporting the bridge and severed it. Nearly 150 feet of bridge collapsed as a result. One motorist driving on the bridge at the time died in the accident.

Floods – Rising water can cause a bridge to collapse either by piling huge amounts of debris on it and forcing it down, or by wearing the structure out slowly over time, sometimes referred to as scour. In 1987, The Schoharie Creek Bridge which carried the New York State Thruway over a creek underwent flooding which caused high water levels. This washed sediment out from under one of the bridge piers, causing it to fall into a hole nearly ten feet deep. Ten people died in the resulting bridge collapse.

If you or someone you know was injured or killed during a bridge collapse caused by design defect, fire, boat impact, flood, or other reason, you may be able to file a claim if those responsible for the bridge were negligent in maintaining it. Contact us for a free consultation to go over your case. There is no fee unless we win.

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