Human Error Blamed for Bridge Incident

The Door County Highway Department released its report on an incident that garnered national attention last month on the Maple to Oregon Street bridge in Sturgeon Bay.

A photo of a car stuck on the lift of the bridge as it was raised Aug. 13 raced across the Internet and television, and left everyone who saw it asking how it could happen.

The report said a 19-year-old woman crossed the lift portion of the bridge traveling east but was confused when she saw the gate come down to stop west-bound traffic (there was no gate across her lane). The driver was not identified in the report.

“A request was made [to not reveal her identity] and we’re honoring it,” said John Kolodziej, head of the Door County Highway Department, who helped conduct the interview with the driver, along with Sturgeon Bay Police Capt. Arleigh Porter.

“The bridge tender observed the vehicle in a position that he fully expected her to clear the off going gate,” the report said.

After she had come to a complete stop, she thought she might be on the lift section. Then she put her vehicle into reverse and proceeded to back up “relatively quickly.”

As the bridge raised, the driver kept her foot on the brake, and honked the horn to get the bridge tender’s attention.

But the bridge tender, who has 17 years of experience, failed to notice the vehicle until the lift was significantly raised. The report said bridge tender should have observed the vehicle on video monitors prior to initiating the controls to raise the bridge.

The new controls of the Maple-Oregon Street bridge are a significant change from the operations of the old Michigan Street Bridge and the Bayview Bridge. The older systems require more input form the bridge tender, while the new semiautomatic system is intended to allow for focus on monitoring the bridge on video monitors.

No cause, “except human error has been identified,” according to the report. Investigators found that the bridge tender was not using a cell phone near the time of the incident, and the driver said she was not distracted by anything at the time it happened, but Kolodziej said he did not know if the driver’s cell phone records had been reviewed.

Further investigation of the incident revealed that the bridge was raised to no more than 30 degrees, not the 45 degrees witnesses originally reported. Had it crossed 40 degrees, the vehicle would not have sustained position. Investigators determined the angle by recreating the photo of the incident with photographer Dustin Fritsch.

The bridge tender used a “slow stop,” rather than an “emergency stop,” when the car was spotted on the lift. An emergency stop could have shaken the vehicle, causing it to slide down the lift.

The bridge tender spoke briefly with the driver after the incident but did not gather her name, contact information, and license plate before letting her drive off and allowing other traffic to pass. Due to a malfunction, video equipment on the bridge failed to record the incident, and the bridge tender did not immediately contact law enforcement.

Kolodziej refused to comment about any disciplinary action for the bridge tender, and said operational changes are not necessary.

“The procedures set out are sound, in my determination, and should not have allowed that situation to take place,” he said. “It’s a situation where the bridge tender should have seen the car on the lift.”