2014-03-27 / News

Bill submitted calling for median barrier

David Prior, lead organizer of Citizens United for Bridge Safety, says the reflective delineators installed on the Newport span in January won’t stop another fatal head-on collision. 
Photo by Andrea von hohenleiten David Prior, lead organizer of Citizens United for Bridge Safety, says the reflective delineators installed on the Newport span in January won’t stop another fatal head-on collision. Photo by Andrea von hohenleiten Following three deaths within 27 months on the Newport Pell Bridge, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Rep. Deb Ruggiero have introduced bills to the state legislature requesting that the bridge authority construct a median barrier on the span immediately.

The legislation comes on the heels of a recently released study by engineering firm CDM Smith that concluded the bridge is unsafe. The effort to improve safety on the bridge has been spearheaded by David Prior, a Pennsylvania man whose brother died in a headon collision on the span in October 2011. Prior started an ad-hoc group called Citizens United for Bridge Safety, and with more than 1,200 Rhode Islanders signing their names to a petition demanding action, Prior’s charge has led to supporting resolutions from neighboring town and city councils, meetings with the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and ultimately the recent proposal by state lawmakers.

Kenneth Prior was a passenger in Kathy Meunier’s car traveling eastbound across the bridge when a vehicle being driven by a teenager crossed into the opposite lane of traffic and collided with Meunier’s car head-on. Meunier died instantly, and Prior succumbed to his injuries the next day at Rhode Island Hospital. State police say the Portsmouth boy driving was speeding and texting.

A little more than two years later, 75-year-old Elijah Swift on Christmas Eve 2013 died after he drove his pick-up truck over the centerline and collided with William Oberg’s vehicle. Oberg, 25, had to be extracted from his car using the Jaws of Life. He was airlifted to Rhode Island Hospital with critical injuries.

Members of Citizens United for Bridge Safety attended last week’s board meeting of the bridge authority. Oberg and his parents offered testimony, which Prior called “powerful and heartbreaking to hear.”

Since the Swift-Oberg crash, the bridge authority has installed 520 yellow reflective delineators in the median, each one about 10 feet apart. David Darlington, chairman of the bridge authority’s board of directors, has said repeatedly that all necessary engineering studies have to be completed before the authority can safely install a heavy median on the span.

Prior says the authority is balking.

“The authority refuses to act and commit to install a barrier,” he said last week. “After 10 years, RITBA wants to study this deadly issue some more. This puts the 28,100 people who cross the bridge every day, including 15,000 commuters, at risk. Clearly there is something wrong when the average speed on the bridge is around 20 mph over the posted speed limit, and when people can drag race over the bridge at 90 mph and only a double yellow line and plastic sticks protect a safe driver.”

Along with calling for an immediate barrier, the legislation from Jamestown’s delegates calls for stiffer penalties for motorists speeding and texting while driving on the bridge.

“The residents of Aquidneck Island rely on the Pell Bridge as their main connection to the rest of the state, and it is essential that we ensure the bridge is as safe as it can be,” said Paiva Weed. “A center barrier will go a long way toward improving safety. Doing everything we can to reduce distractions on the Pell Bridge is also an important step. These actions will save lives.”

Ruggiero, who lives in Jamestown, said the last fatal head-on collision on the six-lane Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was in 2001. “Just like the Golden Gate is doing later this year, we should be building a center median before there are any further tragedies. It’s a common-sense improvement that will cut down on innocent lives being lost.”

The resolution calls for a barrier to be completed by March 31, 2015, and it also indicates that the quasi-public bridge authority should use its own funds to finance the project. Moreover, the legislation asks that RITBA and the state police work together to rigorously enforce the 40-mph speed limit, as well as laws prohibiting distracted driving.

A second bill would increase fines for distracted driving relating to cell phones. Fines for texting while driving would rise from $85 to $100 for a first offense, $100 to $150 for a second offense, and subsequent offenses would double to $250. The legislation leaves intact the license suspensions that are possible at all three levels.

The legislation also raises the fines for drivers under 18 who use cell phones while driving. Currently, fines for first and second offenses are $50; those for subsequent offenses are $100. The bill would raise fines for first, second and subsequent offenses to $100, $150 and $250, respectively. The bill leaves intact a provision that would suspend the license until the driver’s 18th birthday for a third or subsequent offense.

The legislators said it’s the duty of the bridge authority to make the span as safe as possible, and that it’s the duty of drivers to obey the laws and drive safely. The resolutions were made in honor of the memory of Meunier, Prior and Swift, the three people who have died in head-on collisions in recent years.

“The time for excuses and more delays is over,” said Prior. “The authority must act now before another person is killed or critically injured on the bridge. We are all connected in this effort. RITBA holds our safety and lives in their hands. They are responsible, now they must be held accountable.”

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