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Improving traffic safety 
on Golden Gate Bridge 
is not easily solvable

BRAD FOSS
Staff Reporter/Ross Valley

      At times, they have promised $1 million to anyone who presented them with a workable solution. But after more than 15 years, employees of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transporta­tion District, as well as its 19-member board of directors, have come to learn that there are no easy answers when it comes to preventing vehicle collisions on the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. It has also become apparent that if ever a person does invent an effective barrier system for the bridge, the value of that design is worth much more than a million dollars.

     In addition to the bridge’s six ten-foot-wide lanes which feel even narrower when traveling at or above the 45 M.P.H. bridge speed limit-un­predictable weather conditions can make transportation between Mann and San Francisco at times, treacherous. In 1995, there were 80 vehicle accidents on the bridge, and in 1994 there were three fatalities related to cars veering out of their lane.  Bridge engineers are hopeful, but not overly optimistic, that a lightweight, movable barrier system capable of fending off a 4,000-pound vehicle could someday be developed.  Many proposals have been made. And each one of them has been rejected by the bridge district’s board of directors.

     The most common technical hurdle for engineers is to create a barrier that is strong enough to withstand the impact of a car and yet thin enough so that it does not significantly reduce the bridge’s overall lane widths. If any one of the lane widths were reduced further, the likelihood of vehicles side-swiping one another would increase, bridge officials say.  A design by Barrier Systems was recently rejected after it was reviewed by engineers at Northwestern University.  “They concluded that although the design would stop a head-on collision, it could increase the number of rear-end and side-swipe accidents, which could have a detrimental impact on the overall safety of the bridge,” said bridge manager Robert Warren in the mid-80’s, the district-paid for a member of its board of directors to fly to Australia to review a design, but it too was determined to cause more harm than good.

    The search continues.  “They’ve been working on it so long, they’ve got to be close,” said Golden Gate Bridge Captain Ronald Garcia, who believes that as long as people disobey the bridge speed limit, there will be fatalities. “If somebody could up with a workable solution, I really believe the district would do it. No matter what the cost. Well, maybe not at any cost,” Garcia added. He said that about eight years ago the bridge district publicized a $1 million) offering to any inventor who developed a barrier that worked. Just last week, a San Anselmo inventor called a press conference at the Mann Civic Center in San Rafael to unveil ye another design, but this one could work.  

  
Robert M. Guernsey proposed that six-inch retractable barriers, made out of galvanized steel, could provide the necessary rigidity to prevent a vehicle from crossing over into oncoming traffic. The barriers could be raised or lowered into the ridge surface to create different lane configurations, depending on the volume of traffic in either direction.

    The Retractable Delineator System would be controlled by computers and air compressors. Guernsey believes that at six inches wide the barriers would not be hazardous to the already narr­ow lanes.  Guernsey and a Fairfax resident are now trying to garner support from Mann County residents to put an initiative on the November 1996 ballot that would require the bridge district to take a harder look at barrier proposals because they say “the current system of lane reversal cones to separate opposing lanes of traffic on the bridge are inferior and have caused death… to persons driving on the bridge.” 

According to, Warren, the likelihood that Guernsey’s invention would work is “doubtful”. Warren said the major flaw in Guernsey’s proposal is that grooves several inches deep would have to be carved out of the bridge surface to make room for the barriers when not in use. The bridge surface, Warren added, is only two inches deep.

“My quick appraisal of the Guernsey model is that there are aspects of it that would not workout here.” Warren said.  Others dismiss Guernsey’s design simply from an economic standpoint. The Retractable Delineator System is estimated to cost anywhere between $15 million and $20 million.  

 

 “It’s crazy,” said Dick Spotswood, a former member of the bridge district’s board of directors. But, Spotswood commended Guernsey for his efforts to forward further safety studies by way of a countywide initiative. “Sooner or later something will be done about it,” he added.

     About 135,O00 vehicles cross the Golden Gate Bridge every day, generating more than $150,000 in tolls, but with plans underway for a $175 million seismic retrofitting project and serious talk about a bridge sidewalk patrol to prevent suicides, a lane barrier is prioritized third on this list by many officials.  Mainly because no one knows if a workable solution exists.

 

 “First we have to come up with something that works before we begin even considering the costs,” said Warren.  To any engineers with a system they think might work, Board President Bob Mc Donnel says, ‘‘Show us what you’ve got.”


(photo at right)     Robert Guernsey unveiled his ‘Retractable Delineator System’ to the local media corps and county officials last week. Guernsey believes hi~ design can prevent head-on collisions on the Golden Gate Bridge, which in the past have resulted in fatalities. Photo by Privette  

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