‘I thought I would make it’: The strange psychology behind the crashes at a covered bridge in Illinois

CHICAGO — When motorists travel along Robert Parker Coffin Road in north suburban Long Grove, they become subjects in a fascinating psychological test.

Before them sits a charming covered bridge that would fit right into a Robert James Waller novel. The only difference is the large yellow sign affixed to the wood that reads “8-foot-6,” a height significantly shorter than the average school bus or box truck.

Do the drivers of such vehicles heed the numerous warning signs before arriving at the bridge? Do they take a last chance to turn onto a side road? Or do they size up the opening and take their chances?

Roughly twice a month, a driver makes the wrong bet.

The top of their vehicle grinds along the steel skeleton that reinforces the bridge, gouging the roof, knocking off ladders and smashing overhead lights. Or, far worse, the vehicle gets wedged inside and needs a tow truck to yank it free.

“I thought I would make it,” a box truck driver who momentarily got stuck last summer told the Chicago Tribune. “I seriously went 2 mph through there.”

The incidents are harder on the vehicles than they are on the bridge — village manager Greg Jackson said the 44 recorded collisions over the last two years have cost a grand total of $4,000 in repair work — but they are a nuisance, prompting village leaders to search for new solutions.

They’re considering an overhead bar that drivers of oversize trucks would hit before coming to the bridge, or reorienting signs so they’d be more likely to catch a driver’s eye. Another option involves a system that would flash a warning if a too-tall vehicle trips a sensor.

But some locals aren’t sure any of that will work. June Neumann, whose Viking Treasures gift store sits near the bridge, described two recent episodes in which drivers of clearly oversize trucks were about to attempt a crossing before she and a fellow shopkeeper intervened.

“One can’t do the math, and the other thinks, ‘It doesn’t apply to me,’” she said with an exasperated sigh. “How can you add any more signage that changes the brain cells between their ears?”

A rash of crashes

The Robert Parker Coffin Bridge, as it became formally known after a September naming ceremony, was built in 1906 across Buffalo Creek. More than a century later it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

But that honor, ironically enough, was due to the bridge’s unusual iron truss construction, not its iconic wooden cover. That was added only in the 1970s to try to keep heavy trucks off the bridge, which has a 5-ton weight limit.

For decades, the cover more or less did the job. Then, just 16 days after the bridge made the register, along came the driver of a box truck who allegedly disregarded a stop sign and plowed into the cover, knocking part of it off and destroying its lateral bracing.

Village leaders decided to rebuild, and in 2020 residents toasted the new version, which had its wooden crossbeams replaced with steel girders.

One day later, a school bus chartered for a golf event attempted to cross the bridge and got stuck inside the covering. Authorities had to let the air out of its tires so it could be towed away.

That was the beginning of dozens of “bridge strikes,” the most recent of which happened Oct. 3 when an 11-foot-tall U-Haul wedged itself inside. According to the police report, the driver said he hadn’t seen the warning signs along the road before reaching the bridge.

Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Gregory Oakes, who patrols the village, said that’s a common excuse, along with drivers who claim to have been minding their GPS screens instead of the bridge and those who say they didn’t know the height of their vehicles.

Oakes finds the last reason to be particularly maddening, especially when it comes to the seven U-Hauls that have struck the bridge over the last two years.

“If they just looked, it has the height (printed) on the truck, literally next to the front door,” he said.

‘Behaving like robots’

Long Grove is far from alone when it comes to bridge strikes. Researchers say they happen hundreds of times each year all over the world, with some locations becoming notorious.

An underpass beneath a railroad bridge in Durham, North Carolina, has been the site of so many spectacular crashes that it is known as the “Can Opener.” It has a dedicated YouTube channel with nearly 180 hair-raising videos, the most popular of which, with 4.6 million views, shows the top of a box truck getting peeled off after the driver rushed through a yellow light.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),” said the phenomenon in the U.S. might come down to the way driving is designed to be a nearly thoughtless activity, especially on interstate highways.

“The problem comes in moving to more human-scaled or unusual environments that depart from these ‘traffic world’ norms,” he said. “People are still behaving like robots, acting almost as if their car and their GPS and the road signage will guide them automatically to their destination. But there are many times when we need to act like humans on the road, using our skills, intuition, our knowledge of the traffic code and just common sense to move around, the way we would in any other setting.”

Village President Bill Jacob said Long Grove has tried to address the GPS issue by asking digital mapmakers to designate Robert Parker Coffin Road as a local route, which would guide trucks elsewhere, but that has been only intermittently successful.

A solution some engineers have come up with is called an overhead clearance detection system. Two poles placed in front of the bridge carry an infrared beam that, when broken by a vehicle that is too tall, triggers a sign to flash a warning.

Deerfield installed one in 2016 after semitrucks routinely struck a railroad bridge that hangs almost 12 feet over Deerfield Road. Breaking the beam causes the sign to say “Too High” and a red light to be triggered about 300 feet in front of the bridge, said Bob Phillips, director of public works and engineering.

That has halved the number of collisions to about six a year, but it hasn’t stopped them. Phillips said the usual suspects are drivers who are unfamiliar with the road or distracted by electronics.

“They’re looking at their phone, they’re looking at Google Maps,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons, I suppose.”

Search for solutions

At a recent meeting of the Long Grove Village Board, trustees talked about getting an overhead clearance detection system of their own, as well as simpler deterrents such as a steel bar — similar to what you’d find in a drive-thru — that oversize vehicles would hit before striking the bridge.

Trustee Bobbie O’Reilly brought up the idea of even more explicit warning signs, though she noted that one side of the bridge already has seven signs posted nearby. She wondered if drivers were even seeing them before plowing through.

“Each time (the bridge) is being hit it affects our brand,” she said. “It affects our reputation.”

Some in town view the collisions with more amusement than alarm. Mike Marr, owner of Buffalo Creek Brewing, has named several beers after the crashes, including Bad Move, a honey nut brown ale, and a brand-new Munich dunkel called Bus Wedgie.

Standing on the steps behind his establishment, he watched with a Tribune reporter and photographer as a tall work truck, its bed loaded with chunks of asphalt, drove aimlessly through the parking lot before heading in the direction of the bridge.

“If you guys stick around long enough, you might have another story here,” Marr said.

But when the driver reached the road, the covered bridge just a few feet away on his left, he paused, as if considering the test before him.

Finally, he turned right and drove away. He passed.