On May 26, 2002 the Inland towing vessel Robert Y Love pushing two empty asphalt barges up the Arkansas River at mile 360.3 struck the Interstate 40 highway bridge causing the bridge to collapse. It has been said the master on watch passed out. The ending result being 14 fatalities, 5 injuries. This is only one of many other bridgeâ€™s collapsing by being struck by barges with deaths. (See the NTSB Report on the internet) This bridge allision prompted the towing industry to install motion sensors in the pilothouses of their towing vessels. There are two types; one type works off of the movement of the steering leavers the other sensors work off of the vessel operatorâ€™s body movement. Both are turned on by engaging the throttles. The first alarm sounds in the pilothouse then if operator waits too long to wave his/her arms or push a button to deactivate; a second alarm sounds throughout the vessel alerting all crew members. I have been awakened by this alarm more than once when nothing was wrong! Only because the vessel operator walked outside to watch a fuel flat land and tie off alongside! Is this really the answer? There have been bridge allisions caused by over loading the towing vessel with barges, running in poor visibly, by under staffed crews (Towing vessels with only one licensed operator on board violating the 12 hour rule), poorly trained pilots! These detectors would not have prevented any of them. Now if the vessel operator falls out say 500 foot from the bridge what good is that detector, by the time it goes off and the crew is alerted the bridge is hit, most crews wonâ€™t react as to ALL the false alarms in the pass. They have grown use to hearing the alarms going off! Someone in the wheelhouse on site to take action is the true answer!
As a licensed towboat master I have a few questions to ask!
1. Why do these sensors need so much movement to keep them from sounding there alarm?
2. Has a survey ever been conduced to evaluate if these sensors save lives?
3. Do these sensors loud sounding alarms distract the vessel operators while navigating the vessel and its tow?
4. What is the added cost to the towing companies?
5. Did any towing company discuss the installing of these sensors with their vessel operators?
Now with over forty plus years navigating inland waterways, both rivers and canals with all types of tows I can answer #3 (Yes the loud sounding alarms do distract the vessel operator) when an operator is setting up to line up the tow with the bridge opening the very last thing the vessel operator needs is some damn loud sounding alarm going off, braking his/her concentration. Many of the vessel operators have placed some type of moving objects in front of these sensors to keep them from going off. The down fall is, if the towing company office managers find out that the sensors have been rigged in this manor someone is getting terminated! A good pilot does not move the vessels rudders more than is needed to make the steer that is needed, now there are pilots that over steer, some fan the rudders hard over too hard over, by doing so they burn more fuel, costing the towing company money in addition the over steering putâ€™s undue strain on the cables holding the towing vessel and its tow together! There are no government regulations requiring these devices, so why have them on board; the real answer to this problem is a trained look out. These trained personal could be a pilot in training, he/she will see the right way and the wrong way of do things. As the deck crews have very little training as a look-out, fact is most really do not realize the true responsibility of a look out. In rule #5 of the rules of the road (Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision) Train personal to be a look-out, have a trained look-out at all bridge transits, There should be a rule to maintain a proper look-out one hour before any bridge transits! It is my belief that these motion detecting devices are only costing the towing companies money in extra fuel burn by having to move the rudders when not needed, distracting the vessel operator at the worst possible time by doing so also putting added stress on that operator. Possibly causing an accident as well as causing crew members lost of uninterrupted sleep! There are two rules being broken with the use of these costly motion detecting devices. Posting of look out, interrupting crews sleep!
Capt. David Whitehurst Master of Towing vessels Lic.# 1501233