A Durham mother is fighting to fix a bridge where her son died.
Merrill Davis, 34, died Oct. 14 when his car veered off a steep embankment beside a bridge on N.C. 751 in Durham, which runs through Duke Forest. Just beforehand, his northbound car clipped mirrors with a southbound vehicle.
Davis' car burst into flames and it took several days to identify his body through dental records.
His mother, Tamela Davis, still doesn't know what caused him to cross the center line and go down the embankment.
"Kind of thinking he had a medical issue," she said. "I know he had been out to dinner and had a couple of beers."
Whatever the cause, she thinks having guardrails leading into the bridge could have prevented him from crashing at the bottom of the embankment.
"I don't know that guardrails would have saved my son, but they might have," Davis said.
She said if a driver misses the bridge, "You're out of luck. You're going down the embankment and you're not going to survive, likely."
The narrow bridge, which goes over railroad tracks, was built in 1930, according to the NCDOT.
"Two cars can pass on it, but there's no wiggle room," Davis said. "It is so ridiculously narrow."
Tuesday the North Carolina Department of Transportation discussed ways of adding guardrails. The challenge, however, is finding ways of attaching the guardrails.
Guardrails would add about a foot onto the interior of the wall of the bridge, which would creep into the travel lanes, according to Tim Powers, Division 7 bridge program manager for the NCDOT.
"Putting it on the inside of the existing bridge rail is, in my opinion, not an option. We already have a limited space there and we can't afford to narrow it up another foot, foot and a half. That would just make the bridge more dangerous,” Powers said.
The bridge passed inspection in February. On Monday, Powers had the numbers run again to see if it still met a certain rating, which it did. As long as it meets that rating, it does not qualify for federal funds. Without that federal money, the bridge cannot be replaced easily.
It could be replaced if the bridge was added to the list of bridge projects in the state, but Powers said that's not an option that's being considered at this point.
"To move one bridge up in priority, you've got to pick a bridge to move back, make it less prioritized. Often times, that's a difficult decision to make," he said.
Powers and others from the NCDOT will be on site next week looking at how to make the guardrails work.
"Our hearts go out to her and her family, and my personal goal is to do what I can to prevent this from happening again," Powers said.
While Davis wants a completely new and wider bridge, she sees new guardrails as a step in the right direction.
"Adding guardrails would give me some measure of peace. Those steep embankments are just waiting to kill somebody else," she said. "How many people have to die or be seriously injured before the powers-that-be understand that something needs to be done."
The NCDOT is also considering lowering the speed limit, which is currently set at 55 miles per hour.
About 5,000 cars go over the bridge daily, Powers said. Large trucks are restricted from traveling on it unless they have a delivery to be made on the other side.
The bridge is located a few hundred yards within Orange County.
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