The stoplight is red and the “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign flashes urgently as a semi-truck waits at the intersection. The driver has a moment to consider turning before impact with the railroad bridge above Gregson Street. Instead they keep going and approach the bridge at a crawl, hesitate, then charge on. Wrong move.
The crash on Nov. 13, 2020, was just one of more than 160 recorded in this very spot, the scars etched onto the bridge’s protective beam. The beam is the real foe, unmoving and unforgiving. Its scratches are an inventory of human error, of man versus metal (man losing).
The bridge at the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Underpass is known to the world as the Can Opener for the merciless way the beam peels the tops off of unsuspecting trucks. To watch it (160+ times!) is like seeing a giant hand pull the tab on a can of sardines and seeing the metal curve to unveil the prize within.
Since 2008, the Can Opener has developed a cult following well beyond Durham. The website 11foot8.com and its YouTube channel, operated by Jurgen Henn, an IT Manager for the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, have shared videos of the crashes from cameras Henn set up at his office in nearby Brightleaf Square, and, later, in a shop kitty-corner to the bridge.
Henn, who has worked in Brightleaf Square since 2002, got the idea to start recording the videos after a couple of years of hearing trucks smashing into the beam. His YouTube channel had a slow start but now has 164,000 followers. A typical video will get more than 1 million views.
To understand the Can Opener, I watched every video. As I sat in cafes around Durham, I watched hours of scrapes, smashes and crashes, catalogued the human error, the reliability of steel, and the fragility of sheet metal and fiberglass. I laughed and gasped and winced. People stared.
This is what I learned, spiced with some quotes from police reports that give you a flavor of the action.
VEHICLE 1 WAS IN THE RIGHT LANE OF TRAFFIC TRAVELING SOUTH ON GREGSON ST WHEN IT COLLIDED WITH THE OVERHEAD BRIDGE GUARD JUST SOUTH OF W PEABODY ST
Drivers cause the crashes, but in the videos, you don’t see the people very much. They exist in the periphery: innocent bystanders shielding themselves from debris or drivers who jump out of the trucks and throw their hats in frustration. The trucks become animated and the people are minimized to supporting characters.
From what I could tell watching all the videos as well as reading accident reports and news coverage, very few injuries have been reported, and no one has died in the crashes. The majority of the harm seems to be to the drivers’ pride.
While each crash is its own special snowflake, I identified three main types of encounters: the Curious Cat, the Bullet, and the Barbershop Shave.
The Curious Cat takes a hesitant approach; like a troublemaking feline, the driver suspects something is amiss but can’t stop themselves from exploring. Their foot barely touching the gas, they ease toward the bridge. (Perhaps they believe if they are quiet enough, the Can Opener won’t notice the oversize trailer!) Then they hear the unmistakable bang and metallic scrape from above as the beam peels away their roof. Because they’ve gone slowly, some are able to shift into reverse and delicately extract themselves; others need to be rescued.
The Bullet is the most exciting of the Can Opener crashes. The driver approaches with velocity, seemingly unaware of the trap that lies ahead. The impact causes a whiplash, like a dog jerked back by their leash—the cabs sometimes lifted into the air by the impact of the beam. The top layer of aluminum is sometimes guillotined to varying degrees, usually triggering Newton’s first law (objects in motion stay in motion), ensnared where it is crumpled by the equal and opposite force of the wrinkled metal.
And then there is the Barbershop Shave. These trucks almost clear the height requirement, and usually make it most of the way through without much damage—but they leave with a kiss from the bridge. Debris rains down like rice at a wedding, marking union.
DRIVER 1 SAID THAT HIS TRUCK IS MEASURED AT 12’4”; SIGNAGE FOR THE OVERPASS INDICATED THE CLEARANCE IS 12’4”
The North Carolina Department of Transportation has futilely tried to stop the crashes over the years. When I spoke with them, they made it clear that there’s only so much they can do, as the bridge is technically the property of the North Carolina Railroad Company.
“You know from our standpoint, we’ve done everything we can do to help the situation,” said Marty Homan, a spokesman at the NCDOT.
In 2013, new signs indicating the height of the bridge were installed, in addition to a static overhead caution “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” black and yellow sign, to make the clearance warnings more visible. Two hours later, there was a crash.
In 2016, traffic lights were added to the overhead warning that forces drivers to stop, stare at the now height-activated electronic “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign, and ponder their options before they crash into the beam. That day, the camera recorded some successes from the new setup. Two months later, an Excel Moving and Storage truck crashed into the beam.
In 2019, the North Carolina Railroad Company threw the NCDOT a bone—it raised the overpass 8 inches to 12-foot-4-inches. The project was not to prevent damage to trucks, but to level the tracks above. Crews lifted the bridge on hydraulic jacks, re-graded the tracks, and placed shims on the old foundation to add height. They also took the opportunity to spruce up the paint job.
And to accent the bridge’s fresh, unjaded, bright yellow protective beam (installed to replace the one tormented by years of violence) the NCDOT positioned new height warning signs. Still, the bridge is more than a foot below standard overpass height.
“You know, there are multiple signs, there are literally flashing lights that tell you, you’re about to strike the bridge. We can’t really do anything about it,” says Homan, “Because again … it’s not our bridge.”
Three weeks after the 2019 renovation, an Idealease box truck hit the beam and lost a piece of its roof.
DRIVER 1 STATED HE WAS NEW TO THE AREA, WAS DISTRACTED BY THE GPS/NAVIGATION UNIT, DID NOT SEE EITHER OF THE OVER HEIGHT SIGNS OF THE ROAD, DID NOT SEE THE LED AND FLASHING SIGN HE WAS OVER HEIGHT, AND CRASHED INTO THE IRON RAIL PROTECTING ACTUAL RAILROAD BRIDGE
Drivers on Gregson heading toward the underpass are inundated by warnings of their impending doom, but some still crash into the bridge.
How can that be?
The problem is not unique to the Can Opener. Traffic sign experts and traffic engineers from across the globe are baffled and intrigued by this question of road sign efficacy.
“Criteria for the Design and Evaluation of Traffic Sign Symbols,” a 1988 study published by Robert Dewar, explores various aspects about why signs work and don’t work. Dewar’s careful analysis found “understandability” and “conspicuity” to be the most valuable aspects of effective signaling. The report leaves a reader thinking that a combo like, “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN,” surrounded by flashing lights, and accented with clearly noted height requirements, might persuade drivers not to crash into a railroad bridge. But apparently not.
Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman writes that the signs aren’t flawed, we just have too many of them. Monderman believes that drivers have become numb to the forests of signs on many roads. They just tune them out.
For clarity, look no farther than “Driver’s Cognitive Workload and Driving Performance under Traffic Sign Information Exposure in Complex Environments: A Case Study of the Highways in China” (a paper whose title seems to be a “cognitive workload” itself). It, too, makes the point that drivers are overloaded with stimuli and can’t process all the signs they see.
Indeed, I noticed that many of the Can Opener’s victims are Penske or other rental trucks. That suggests the drivers might be unfamiliar with their trucks, unaware of their clearance and don’t realize they need to be on the lookout for overheight signs.
Henn, resident 11’8” (now +8”) expert, has some different ideas.
“I think people are just distracted. They don’t expect it, sneaks up on them a little bit,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And the location is a little tricky because it’s a two lane, one-way road between two relatively tall buildings. So the approach is really narrow.”
On top of that, drivers are often speeding on this road. The speed limit is 25 mph; an impact at that speed would not cause Bullet level damage.
“If you haven’t been paying attention to the signs, you won’t catch the bridge, and by that time you’re on it,” he said.
VEHICLE #1 COLLIDED WITH A LOW BRIDGE PROTECTION PILLAR, DAMAGING THE TOP OF THE BOX TRUCK. THE PILLAR PROTECTS THE RAILROAD BRIDGE THAT CROSSES OVER N GREGSON ST.
To watch over 160 of these collision videos is to understand the modern limits of onomatopoeia. Somewhere around video 30, “shhhhhhrhastpt,” “craaasttshp,” and “sRTkkkst” all start to tire of their intrigue.
Watching them is to realize, too, how few verbs there really are to describe the length, magnitude, and velocity of a large truck unknowingly stopped by a steel beam. “Collide”, used often in the police reports of the incidents, seems to forget that the tops of these trucks are flayed effortlessly. “Smash” ignores the delicate niche of the truck’s cab gliding under the bridge, only to be harangued back by the bar’s unsympathetic disposition. “Hit” is useless. I looked up synonyms for “decapitate.”
I tried to be precise in my descriptions but found the terms of local trucking were a bit baffling. In the case of the box truck, stout or extended, the structure tends to be made up of dry freight aluminum sheeting within a heavy duty metal frame or Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood, according to a US Truck Body brochure. Both styles are adorned with an aluminum “Zephyr” front nose and corner castings. This seems to be the piece that sustains the Can Opener’s initial blow.
But the beam is not discriminating in its victims, and box varieties are not the only overpass underpassers with battlescars to show. Many campers will find themselves sweating in the summer months, as their RV’s AC units get plucked off by the beam. One trailer carrying a stable’s worth of hay lost two bales from the top of the pile to the team, and trailers alike often find themselves stacked too high for the bridge’s liking.
The worst crashes look horrible. The top is guillotined with a swift but abrasive punch. In some cases, the roofing is rolled off with precision, like those fancy ice cream places that take a scoop and turn it into a tube. Depending, then, on the extent of the damage to the top, the sides begin to give. If the beam intersects at the right angle, the sides sometimes mangle from the get-go, and the whole truck box suffers a rupture.
Every now and then, a driver is able to escape. When November’s 18-wheeler victim moved forward after its sneak approach, its cab bounced under the beam with a snap and pop. Thinking quickly, the driver dropped the air suspension and backed out to avoid further damage. After careful extraction, his box attachment escaped unscathed.
The Can Opener was left hungry.
THE VEHICLE WAS RETRIEVED BY ONE OF ITS COMPANIES REPRESENTATIVES AND CONTINUED IN MOTION.
Photo montage at top: Six of the 162 videos we watched from 11foot8.com. Copyright Jürgen Henn – 11foot8.com