It’s the Signs Schumer

New York, New York

New York transportation authorities and the State’s incomprehensible system for marking height clearance, not the GPS, are to blame when big trucks hit bridges in and around New York State.

It's the Signs Schumer

A big truck, 13 foot 6 inches high, passes the MUST exit sign on I-278 in Brooklyn, NY, but has no fear, despite the low clearance sign, the road will accommodate the truck height.

We were jolted to attention by a Road Dog radio report that New York’s Senior Senator, Charles Schumer, is demanding an investigation into big trucks hitting bridges. Schumer blamed driver misuse of GPSs for the 43 incidents last year of trucks hitting bridges on Long Island. He wants “nation-wide standards” for GPSs.

It's the Signs Schumer

Clearance signage has become so confusing in New York state that the DOT has now added the word “ACTUAL” to clearance signs to eliminate confusion. Most clearance signs are actually, ONE foot less than real clearance, sometimes.

Yes, trucks hit bridges. But the problem in New York is that transportation authorities force trucks off the actual, safe truck routes onto secondary routes because the State has chosen to post clearance signs that are wrong. The posted clearance is ONE foot less than the actual clearance. It is confusing. It is dangerous.

Three years ago, we spent $500 on a truck specific GPS, which accounts for our truck’s height, width, weight and Hazardous Materials cargo. The GPS is a data dump, it absorbs information and provides routing based on information provided by the state. When a state puts out information that a clearance is 12 foot six inches, the GPS knows we are 13 foot six inches and works very hard, continually recalculating to force us off the route. The “misuse” of the GPS is by the nation’s DOTs and state transportation authorities. It is they who need standards for safe, reliable signage so information fed into the GPS is accurate.

Even if the GPS is correct, when a driver sees a sign that says it is too low for the truck to fit under, true or not, the driver will believe the sign over the GPS.

The better, more immediate, fix is that the New York Department of Transportation start using accurate clearance signs. Currently GPS information ranges from lifesaving to helpful to destructive. It is no replacement, nor will it ever be a replacement, for directions provided by the location. Shippers and receivers, in the four years that we have been driving, have gone from providing directions to waving off drivers, saying, you have a GPS, washing their hands of the chore and the responsibility.

It's the Signs Schumer

An example of the confusing array of signs that bombard big truck drivers driving in New York City. This is also typical in most of the US’s large cities. Signs, thick and jumbled, difficult to read and react to, and recently, pleading poverty, states were let off the hook on improving signage. Improving signage is an investment that will save millions in damage to taxpayer resources, the road system.

Modern big truck driving requires an Internet connection, a GPS, Google Maps, Google Street View and the Rand McNally truck atlas and that’s no guarantee of smooth passage.

New York authorities chose an implausible rationale, one used nowhere else in North America, in an industry designed and built on a transient workforce. Drivers not only come and go, the turnover rate is more than 100%, but drivers may be on the road for years before driving to New York.

It's the Signs Schumer

New York is a land of bridges, tunnels, parkways and interstates. The parkways, largely designed as scenic routes, the first opened in 1929, have low, decorative stone bridges with clearance eleven feet or lower. The interstates accommodate big trucks with a height of 13 foot six inches and there are many in the state.

This industry has one standard drilled into drivers heads. Legal truck height for condo cabs, dry vans, moving vans, refrigerated vans and chassises with shipping containers is 13 feet six inches. Most trailers have a sticker which a driver sees every time she looks in the side mirror, known as the Westcoast mirror. Height 13 feet six inches. When we drive from California to Maine, from Washington to Florida, from Texas to Minnesota, we are alert for one sign, heights below 13 feet six inches. We took a shortcut in Indiana once and came upon a 13 foot four inch clearance, we had to back up and turn down another road.

It's the Signs Schumer

The MUST exit sign in Brooklyn, New York, takes big truck traffic off an Interstate, I-278, and sends the trucks winding through downtown Brooklyn past pedestians, shopping and schools. And the sign is inaccurate, a big truck at 13 foot six inches will make the drive without ripping open the trailer like a can of sardines.

But this is not the case in New York State and New York City where authorities have created a one-off system, only used here, which subtracts one foot from the real clearance.

This is, legend has it, to make drivers aware that the road surface, such as snow, fresh asphalt, could change the clearance and drivers must make adjustments. This is a land where there are few alternate routes. If I cannot go under the bridge in front of me, I have a serious problem. There is no place to turn around, streets are narrow and crowded with pedestrians.

Blaming the drivers relieves New York DOT of the expense — new signs to fix the problem — and responsibility. Up until recently, in the past two years, at the exit drivers MUST take to the Whitestone Bridge, heading West to New Jersey, from JFK Airport, the sign to the left said Grand Central Parkway and it had NO height warning, and to the right, the truck route to the Whitestone Bridge had a clearance sign that said 12’ 5”.

In a driver’s mind, at the crucial decision making point, the clearance sign takes precedence and she says “#%$ I can’t get under” and heads left to the parkway. The sign was recently changed to trucks OVER 10’ 5”, except the last time I took the route there was a second clearance sign below saying 12’ 1”, which may mean, and probably means, on the shoulder. In most states, they put on the sign, shoulder clearance 13 foot one inch.

The first thing a driver thinks when confronted with a clearance sign in New York is, Is that really 12 feet or is it 13 feet — and we have a lot running through our minds, terrible road surface, traffic, weather, where’s the trailer — an
d if it’s 13 feet one inch, then I still can’t fit underneath. Most truckers need 13 feet SIX inches. If it’s the shoulder clearance, hug the centerline.

It's the Signs Schumer

This clearance sign is on I-87 near the Canadian border. We are convinced a Canadian driver did the mental math, metric to imperial and got confused on the one-foot off New York rule and hit the sign because he was really over 14 foot three inches.

On our delivery in July to JFK Airport, we crossed the Verrazano Bridge onto the BQE, we checked with our truck map, we checked with other drivers, who told us yes, we could stay on I-278, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge, driving on the Interstate, around, all the way to the airport. The straightforward route, the easier route, the route with no pedestrian traffic.

Except that there is a sign that says trucks higher than 12’ 2” MUST exit I-278 at Atlantic Avenue. We debated, traffic moved slowly, other big trucks were continuing on, was there something down there we didn’t know about, was this a recent construction change. And was it 12’ 2” or 13’ 2” even 13’ 2” isn’t enough for us, our tractor is 13 feet four inches high. Was the sign referring to an overpass or the shoulder?

We took the exit and drove, on the “designated truck route” through downtown Brooklyn, pedestrians jumping in front of us, unwilling to wait while we inched through the intersections, in front of the new arena, through the shopping areas. Why did they want us off the Interstate? We passed another bridge marked at 12’ 9”, another truck took it, he cleared, so we took it. That must really be 13 foot nine inches.

It's the Signs Schumer

These four photos were taken on our July trip, when we took the MUST exit 27 and wound our way through Brooklyn, NY at rush hour. The photo on the bottom left shows another clearance sign of 12 foot one inch, along this so-called truck route, and the bottom right is the van driver, who pulled out in front of us and pulled a u-turn even though he could not see any traffic from any direction. He just did it!

We stayed in Manhattan after the delivery and MacGyver rode the Vespa back to the BQE to photograph the signs and watched the 13 foot six inch trucks continue on past the MUST exit sign. Staying on the Interstate IS the safer route, he says, away from the pedestrians, the schools, the shopping.

It's the Signs Schumer

Two views of I-278 at the point a low clearance sign tries to force drivers off the Interstate, which has enough clearance for a 13 foot six inch truck. On the left, traffic toward the Brooklyn Bridge, the route trucks take, on the right, MacGyver is on the bridge looking towards the right photo, a 13 foot six inch big truck, more than the clearance sign says can be accommodated, continues along and will head under the bridge with no consequences. I-278 is the safest big truck route, not through downtown Brooklyn.

On the load we just dropped in Quebec, we traveled through Vermont to the Canadian border crossing at Champlain, New York where there is another clearance sign in New York state. This one says ACTUAL clearance 14 foot 3 inches.

We’d bet money that the NY DOT was forced to hang an ACTUAL clearance sign because drivers thought they had to leave the Interstate, becoming confused about whether the clearance sign meant 13 foot three inches or 15 foot three inches, putting the truck onto a secondary route, where the driver hit a real low bridge.

New York State needs to change its policy in the interest of safety and long term savings to taxpayers.

Since GPSs only repeat information, the Federal Department of Transportation should make it mandatory that all jurisdictions update maps every quarter. If the maps and/or signs are inaccurate no standardization rules will change the situation. That of course is a cost to cities and states that were recently let off the hook on improving signage because of lack of funds.

It's the Signs Schumer

This photo illustrates another serious signage problem that big truck drivers face across the country. Important signs, such as clearance signs, are covered with foliage or obscured by other signs and obstructions. If you can’t see, you can’t follow it.

And Mr. Schumer if you’re a fan of standardization in the name of safety, take some of that almost 4.5 cents a mile of tax that we pay in New York — over and above the tolls and the federal fuel tax — and change the New York exit signs to match the mile marker posts. Except in the northeast, the states have adopted this system, it’s safer, because drivers always know their location.

Go the real distance and persuade New York State to adopt Gridlock Sam’s transportation plan that will take trucks going to JFK and Long Island across the Verrazano Bridge onto the Belt Parkway, which is currently not open to trucks, away from Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge and New York City. The current route is dangerous.

It's the Signs Schumer

Google’s Streetview shows 13′ 6″ trucks traveling under the Brooklyn Bridge that is marked 12′ 2″.

There are 25 million people in the Tri-State area, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that require a lot of big trucks to service their basic needs, food, clothing, furniture, cars, building products, shipping containers this is a problem that needs a solution.

July was our first trip to JFK since we left Forward Air in May, 2011. We watch the signs, we know our truck GPS is helpful but not infallible.

If we, the New York City truckers, didn’t know our way around, we might not have made it.

17 thoughts on “It’s the Signs Schumer

  1. Great post! Just found you through the Landline article (OOIDA lifetimer here) and bookmarked you. Looking forward to reading all your other posts. Yeah, New York — grrr.


  2. As usual, a great post. Even though I'm a native New Yorker, I learned about the clearance sign/bridge issue from Ed, when I first started driving a truck – I freaked out while driving when I saw a 12' 2" clearance sign and knew I couldn't stop or turn around before I got to the bridge. That's when Ed said, "You're fine. It's New York. Just keep going." I still physically schooched my head down as we entered, and went under the bridge, expecting to hit at some point. But it never happened. I was a confident driver, having driven for years in Manhattan and the other boroughs, but in a car, it's just not something you ever notice. New York is a challenge to some people when driving under normal circumstances, add an 18-wheeler to the mix, and you know why so many companies tout "No NYC" in their recruitment ads, and why so many drivers either cringe when sent there (or anywhere in the tri-state area), or proclaim, "I never go to New York!". And relying on GPS – truck version or otherwise – is just not a good option. Having accurate, highly visible signage, far enough in advance of the actual clearance, is the best and only option. It wouldn't hurt for the other truck routes to be clearly identified, either. It sucks when you get to an intersection, and directly in front of you is the "No Trucks" truck-in-red-circle-with-the-line-through-it symbol, giving you no warning that you were approaching an area you might have a wee bit of trouble extracting yourself from. That said – I'd still take driving in New York over California ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.


  3. Mariana this article was very informative,Most truck drivers are not from the New York City area.They are so intimidated they just won't go there.I can tell you after 35 years Hauling oversize loads from Boston to New York City you learn something new every day.That being said, I found not using GPS is sometimes much Better,Old school tactics sometimes really do pay off.When i have a big move in to any borough of New York city area. I have it surveyed performed or I get in to my own Pickup and drive it myself.New York can be a very hazardous place for a Big Truck the more information Drivers get about this subject,the more safer the trucking industries will be in New York city.Thank you for the time you have put in to this article it is great.


  4. Mariana this article was very informative,Most truck drivers are not from the New York City area.They are so intimidated they just won't go there.I can tell you after 35 years Hauling oversize loads from Boston to New York City you learn something new every day.That being said, I found not using GPS is sometimes much Better,Old school tactics sometimes really do pay off.When i have a big move in to any borough of New York city area. I have it surveyed performed or I get in to my own Pickup and drive it myself.New York can be a very hazardous place for a Big Truck the more information Drivers get about this subject,the more safer the trucking industries will be in New York city.Thank you for the time you have put in to this article it is great.


  5. Ed, I'm trying to do what I can with the politicians. I called Schumer's office to let them know about the post. The Press Officer looked at the blog post while I was on the phone and took my contact information. I certainly would be happy to tell Mr. Schumer more. Meantime, it is campaign season and I urge NY drivers to bring up this issue with any politician and would be politician.Marc, thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoy the other posts.Jay, most drivers, me included wish we could take a dry run before going in to NYC. I agree, there are times, many times, that the GPS should simply be turned off. One of my other peeves, is the shipping community thinks that a GPS is god and there are fewer and fewer people who want to help the drivers with directions.And Salena, politicians, regulators, safety groups, everyone is putting the safety onus on drivers, when this is a shared responsibility. But it's easier to put the cost on the driver end. Truck route signs are tiny, they are positioned in hard to see places, they are covered with foliage. There are too many signs about all sorts of things which take away from the impact of a really important sign.I have come to understand, what drivers say — truckin' ain't for sissies.


  6. I started to run into nyc in the late 70,s and had trouble with the clearance signs untill i found out that they measured from the top of the curb, this is something that needs to be corrected, maybe that senator will read this


  7. My company pays the tolls and adds hundreds of dollars to a typical load just because it goes into NYC. People complain about how much it costs to live there. They wonder why?For those drivers who go there, and do it all the time, the extra money may be easy money but I'm not taking it. To do it once or twice a year it's not worth the stress that NYC causes. BTW, I'm getting the same way about going to NJ. I was doing a delivery to a USPS mail drop. On my way in I ended up looking at a low bridge sign. After I started my turn to go around the bridge I saw a truck sail under the bridge. When I finally got to the Post Office I asked about the bridge sign. According to the dock supervisor they change the sign about a year ago because the local home owners complained complained about the truck traffic.


  8. Yep, I took that exit 27 when I first started driving 15 years ago. The reason they did it was because they had lights in the overhang of the road…which haven't been there in years. It's annoying that nothing has changed.


  9. What you are all failing to understand is that the sign on or at a bridge in NY is white-on-black; in other words a REGULATORY sign and if you are taller than the height listed on the sign you are driving under that bridge illeglally and are liable to be ticketed. I know that NY is the only state that posts at 12" below actual (other states generally post between 1" and 3" below actual), but a regulatory sign is a regulatory sign. I'm not suppporting how NY is posting its low bridges, but truck drivers need to pay attenetion to the low clearance signs in NY because they are liable to get a ticket even if they fit under the bridge.


  10. Sally, thanks for this information, I did not know there was a difference and why some clearance signs are black on white and some are yellow. What you say adds another dimension to this wrongheaded policy. The difference in signs begs more questions Are the regulatory signs correct, I doubt it, are the yellow signs a warning, kind of a nudge, nudge, wink, wink from NYS sayings, we're saying this one is low, but you can make it, so there's no ticket. The additional one to 3 inches also explains why we fit a dry box, on the supposed truck route, under a 12 foot 4 inch clearance sign. This is not a issue that should have confusion. Some days I don't think a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon could do this job,


  11. In one case we had a shipper give us directions which led under a railroad bridge with low clearance. The sign was obstructed and we never saw it with the result that we hit that bridge. Luckily it looked low to my husband who is a 29 year veteran and so he was going extremely slow. Still, there was damage to the trailer and it had to go into the shop for several weeks. So use the shipper's directions with caution!


  12. Without not much exaggeration, I can count on one hand the times that shippers have given good directions. In addition to poor directions — everyone now thinks because we have a GPS we no longer need directions — the signage is poor or missing altogether. And if we bring this to anyone's attention, we have an attitude problem. I just had a driver friend, with two gps's get put onto the wrong road, which luckily he could back out of.


  13. I as a florida driver had been to hunts point produce and meat market and life was easier back then. Few days ago i had to do a drop at brooklyn and boy thats a story i will never forget. Not being well informed and aware of the bridge heights every time i saw a 12"2 bridge i took a turn afraid i would leave the trailer hanging in the interception. Police even had to escort me out to make a few U turns in the middle of brooklyn. Story short i was comming back from brooklyn to bronx to try to exit at georgea washington and got off at exit 27 on 278 east. I could not find my way arround and took 278 west on that same exit.LOL?!. Finally ended out leaving by Varrazanos bridge and i think that amount of stress i felt in those sort of situation well theyre just not enough words for it.Anyways your article was very educational and i am really proud to have stumbled into you guys, and i believe its my duty to share this with my fellow drivers!Once again thanks for the very insightfull artice and good luck!


  14. This may of 2015Are there any laws in affect in nystate that requires low clearance signs to be posted especially within a clearmy posted t rry uck rout


  15. Pingback: The Ups and Downs of Planning on the Fly – Neales…on wheels!

    • Great photos and information Neales On Wheels. We find ourselves continuing to avoid NY State. Although, the highway directional signage on I-95 and the NJ Turnpike has improved greatly in the last two-to-three years. Enjoy your travel.


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