A Road Ranger truck hit a Toyota pickup from behind and sent it plunging over the side of the Buckman Bridge early Tuesday, killing the 61-year-old driver after the pickup sank into the St. Johns River.
The 23-year-old man driving the Florida Department of Transportation Road Ranger pickup was not hurt, the Florida Highway Patrol said, but the crash snarled traffic for miles and refocused attention on the bridge’s safety.
The Road Ranger and the Toyota were headed north on the bridge when the crash occurred just before 3:30 a.m., FHP Sgt. Dylan Bryant said.
“The Toyota hit the concrete barrier wall and actually came up on top of that wall,” Bryant said. “It continued a little bit and struck a light pole, which then allowed the vehicle to teeter over into the waterway. Unfortunately, the occupant of the vehicle was unable to exit. It submerged and came to rest next to one of the bridge pilings.”
First Coast Road Rangers is a free service of the FDOT, providing highway assistance to motorists.
When not responding to calls, the program removes highway debris, cleans up after crashes and patrols the roads to monitor traffic conditions and report incidents.
The Highway Patrol is investigating the cause of the initial collision. FHP did not release the identity of the dead man or the Road Ranger driver.
FDOT officials issued a brief statement, saying their “hearts break whenever we learn of a fatality on the roadway.”
“As with all crashes on the roadway, FDOT will refrain from speaking on the crash itself as it is pending investigation,” the statement says. “As a matter of process, FDOT evaluates all crashes that occur on state facilities after the investigation and will take appropriate action at that time.”
Crashes that result in a vehicle rolling or flipping over a Buckman Bridge barrier are rare, Bryant said. Between 2009 and 2013, only two vehicles went over the wall in 74 northbound and 62 southbound crashes that hit either or both of the bridge walls, according to an FDOT Buckman Bridge Safety Study in 2015. The results included an additional northbound crash in 2014 that hit the barrier wall.
“That is not something we normally see about the design of the concrete barrier wall,” Bryant said. “Typically it will stop or redirect vehicles back toward the lanes of travel. But each circumstance is different. This particular vehicle was able to ride up the wall and then when it contacted the light pole, that allowed the vehicle to proceed into the waterway.”
Buckman Bridge barrier walls are the standard 32-inch-tall design, the FDOT report said. There was no information regarding the height of the vehicles that went over the barrier walls in those two crashes, the study said. No available studies suggest what height of barrier would further deter vehicles passing over it, according to the study
But the study does provide information on two barrier alternatives, neither of which would significantly improve safety, the study says.
Replacing the 32-inch-tall barrier with a 42-inch design would not reduce the number of vehicles leaving the bridge, the study said. The second alternative — an elliptical metal railing mounted on top of the existing 32-inch barrier wall — would “provide limited amount of additional protection” if a vehicle hit the barrier with the potential to roll over the wall.
As the Highway Patrol investigation continues, investigators have not determined why the Road Ranger pickup rear-ended the Toyota, Bryant said. Troopers did get witness information as well as information from the Road Ranger driver, he said.
Video from the News4Jax helicopter just before 10 a.m. shows the dark-colored pickup truck after it was retrieved from the river, placed in the breakdown lane as traffic slowly went by.
The crash and investigation caused massive traffic backups. FDOT cameras still showed slow traffic approaching the bridge’s northbound lanes late Tuesday morning.