Protecting Bridges From Ship Collisions

A civil engineer outlines the federal regulations and mechanisms aimed at preventing the damage and loss of life seen in the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse.

1 minute read

April 2, 2024, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


View from under Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, MD.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland was damaged by a ship collision in late March. | Christine / Adobe Stock

In an interview with Governing, civil engineer Sherif El-Tawil explains how bridges can be built to better withstand ship collisions like the one that damaged the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on March 26.

El-Tawil explains that a similar collision in 1980 prompted new federal regulations that took effect in the early 1990s — three years after the Baltimore bridge was built. “What those specifications say is that you either design the bridge for the impact force that a ship can deliver or you must protect the bridge against that impact force. So you must have a protective system.”

El-Tawil notes that such ship collisions are extremely rare, which could explain the lack of expensive protective mechanisms on the Key Bridge. Still, the loss of the bridge will have a major impact on shipping and the national supply chain. “The loss of this bridge, beyond the tragic loss of life, is going to be felt for many months if not years. It’s not a straightforward process to replace a bridge of this magnitude, of this span distance. It’s something that will require a lot of planning and a lot of resources to come back again to where we were before.”

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