April 4, 2017


The collapse of a 250-foot span of an elevated section of Interstate 85 just north of downtown Atlanta last week was big news, not only in Atlanta and the Southeast but nationwide, in part because it was both spectacular and rare.

But it also was because everyone around the country who regularly, or even occasionally, needs to drive through a crowded and congested big city instantly recognized how enormous a disruption such an event will be for drivers.

Fire and highway design and safety inspectors continued to study over the weekend what caused the fire that led to the collapse of that 250-foot section of northbound I-85. The fire also so severely damaged adjacent sections of freeway that 350 feet of both the northbound and southbound lanes will have to be entirely replaced. Police arrested three men believed to be homeless in connection with the fire, which investigators believe was intentionally set.

The incident began during late afternoon rush hour on March 30 when construction materials stored under the overpass began burning. Vehicles passing overhead continued to drive through the smoke before it got so thick that local and state police units shut down the highway in both directions and began routing traffic onto side streets.

The back-up stretched more five miles in both directions on I-85. Traffic on nearby Interstate 75, which joins up I-85 just south of the I-85 collapse location for their joint run through the heart of Atlanta, and heavily traveled GA400 north of the collapse zone also was slowed to a crawl. Overloaded surface streets ground quickly to a standstill. Reports abounded of people being delayed by four or five hours by the situation.

Collapse will affect traffic for months

Such events are, by definition, rare and unpredictable. But when they happen the impact on motorists is both profound and long lasting. Maybe the most heavily impacted are commercial drivers and their vehicles, whether they’re long-haul operators just passing through an affected area or a local delivery truck and van operator who has to pass through the affected area multiple times a day.

Atlanta, the hub of the Southeast, already was the region’s most congested city and one of the most congested in the nation. Now, navigating these already crowded streets will be a huge frustration for local drivers and an enormous business challenge for commercial drivers for months to come.

City and state officials aren’t able yet to put a date on when the destroyed and damaged sections of I-85 will be replaced. But, based on how long it took for the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to be replaced after a tragic and deadly collapse in 2007, expect driving in and through Atlanta to be even more difficult than usual for six months or more. The new bridge in Minneapolis opened just under 14 months after the old bridge fell into the Mississippi. The effected highway in Atlanta is only about a sixth as long as the Minneapolis bridge, and it’s built over dry ground. But the Atlanta highway is five lanes wide in each direction while the Minneapolis bridge was only two lanes wide.

Managing around unexpected delays requires better routing

For commercial drivers it’s going to be critical that they be able to navigate around the many slow-downs and closures that are going to be caused by the collapse. This is going to be a testing ground. For those carriers that are more technologically savvy and have dynamic routing capabilities, losing I-85 is going to be a hindrance but not a roadblock. For those that aren’t using these advance routing technologies, losing I-85 and getting stuck in backups and detours could literally kill their business.

Carriers that already utilize technologies like advanced mapping, routing, dispatching and analytic hardware and software in both the truck cab have the advantage. Ideally, dispatchers and drivers can work together before the truck ever leaves the loading dock to find the best way to avoid big choke points, like I-85 promises to be for months.

This hardware and software can help drivers learn of sudden new backups far enough in advance to find alternate routes around the problem area, like Interstate 285, which loops most of the Greater Atlanta area. Even then, alternate roads are likely to be unusually congested or jammed because of all the extra traffic they’re being forced to accommodate. Onboard technology, again, can direct drivers to use the least congested of the available alternate routes.

And if drivers are unfortunate enough to be so close to an unexpected event that they can’t divert to another major highway, the same onboard technology can, at the very least, guide them through crowded city streets in ways that can keep them from being trapped in gridlock or ensnared by streets that simply aren’t compatible with larger vehicles.

At the same time, onboard analytics can keep dispatchers informed about what’s going on with their trucks and drivers. In some cases, those dispatchers might be able to provide useful advice or instructions to help minimize the frustration and costs of such delays. And in most cases they will, at the very least, be able to alert customers that their shipments are being delayed by unexpected or extraordinary highway conditions.

For the companies that don’t have these capabilities, the negative economic impact on those drivers, the companies they drive for, and the customers whose goods they haul could be extraordinary.