At the corner of Gregson and Peabody streets in Durham, North Carolina lies what at first glance appears to be an innocent railroad trestle – but this is no ordinary railroad trestle.
It is sinister and cunning and will mercilessly scalp any vehicle too high and mighty for its own good.
Well, most bridges in North Carolina have a 15-foot clearance (about 4,5 meters), but this was designed in the 1920s and built in 1940, and so it has a clearance of 11 feet 8 inches (3,6 meters). This architectural dysfunction occurs because approximately 100 years ago, at the time of its construction, no building standards regarding vertical clearance were in place.
Now that’s pretty rare, making it dangerously low for modern trucks to pass safely beneath without a cacophonous and melodramatic shave off the top, as many drivers don’t really pay attentions to the warning signs and they become a “victim” of the popular Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Overpass, commonly known as the 11-foot-8 Bridge or 11-foot-8+8 Bridge post-raising.
The standard clearance, since 1973, has a minimum height of 14 feet (4.27 m), which is 2 feet 4 inches (0.71 m) higher than the bridge as built.
Why don’t they just fix it? Raise the bridge? Lower the road? Why is such a clear safety hazard allowed to continue existing?
It seems Norfolk Southern Railroad owns the trestle and is much more concerned with keeping the trains running uninterrupted than dealing with someone else’s safe passage. There – problem solved.
Over the years, despite numerous warning signs about the low clearance, a large number of trucks, buses, and RVs have collided with the overpass at high speed, tearing off roof fixtures, and at times shearing off the trucks’ roofs, earning the bridge the nicknames the “Can Opener” and the “Gregson Street Guillotine”.
The state authorities went out of their way to mark it as an unusually low clearance bridge, in the hope that most overheight truck drivers would turn back, but lot of them don’t pay attention to the signs and, by the time they realize they may not fit, it’s too late.
The city of Durham has made valiant efforts to warn truckers.
Well in advance of the bridge they have installed pretty yellow signs and sensors that trip sparkly flashing lights when too-tall trucks pass by. They have also posted a 25 MPH speed limit… all of which many truckers promptly ignore.
Eventually, the state had no choice to break the piggy bank and lift the old train bridge by 20 centimeters to avoid other accidents, but that doesn’t seem to have done much good, as the can opener recently claimed its 167th victim.
“I think people are just distracted. They don’t expect it, sneaks up on them a little bit,” Jurgen Henn, of the 11feet8 website and YouTube channel, told 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. If you haven’t been paying attention to the signs, you won’t catch the bridge, and by that time you’re on it.”
Jurgen Hen is also the man responsible for making the can opener bridge an online celebrity of sorts. He has been posting videos of truck accidents there for years, and today its YouTube channel has over 170,000 subscribers, and tens of millions of views.
There is just something about watching someone else misfortune that people can’t resist and, interestingly, there’s even a word for it, “schadenfreude”.
After witnessing dozens of truck accidents from the window of his office overlooking the bridge, Jurgen decided to set up a surveillance camera to capture the crashes. He then started posting them online, and because people seem to enjoy them so much, he create the 11foot8 website and even a souvenir shop where people can buy “crash art”, or mangled pieces of aluminum from the frame of trucks that crashed into the bridge.
For years, authorities stood by as dozens of trucks fell victim to the infamous bridge in Durham.
As far as they were concerned, there were plenty of road signs, including light signals, warning overheight truck to turn back. And thus It was their fault if they chose to ignore the signs, or simply weren’t paying attention.
However, in 2019, work to raise the clearance by 20 centimeters began, and even though the famous 11foot8 bridge is now 8 inches taller, the old name stuck, and with it the reputation.
And for good reason, as it’s still taking the scalp of high trucks on a regular basis.
Three weeks after the 2019 renovation, an Idealease box truck hit the beam and lost a piece of its roof. Others followed over the next few months. The latest victim, the 167th since Jurgen Hen installed his surveillance camera, hit the bridge on May 11th, and had its roof stripped clean off.
And so it goes that this bridge continues to lie quietly in wait for approaching big rigs and their “asleep at the wheel” drivers who choose, for whatever reason, to test the validity of the warnings and the laws of physics.
And still today, the can opener is hungry, so if you happen to be driving a truck through Durham and see a sign that reads “Overheight Must Turn”, don’t ignore it, or you can be its next victim….