Initially it was thought to be another example of shoddy construction. But the case of a collapsing bridge in Wuxi – a city in eastern Jiangsu province – was actually caused by overloading, a preliminary investigation has suggested.
The 15 year-old flyover collapsed during evening rush hour on October 10. Video of the tragedy showed the overpass tipping to one side, and then crashing down, in one piece, on the cars below. Three people were killed, including a five year-old girl and her mother.
Witnesses told Caixin Weekly that a truck carrying six industrial-sized steel rolls was crossing the overpass just before it collapsed. One of the steel rolls in question weighed nearly 30,000 kilograms, the magazine said, and the six rolls would have weighed nearly 180 metric tonnes. The legal load for trucks of that size is 49 tonnes and the maximum load that section of flyover was designed for was 64 tonnes, government regulations show.
China has long struggled with the problem of overloaded trucks. Between 2006 and 2016 they were the cause of 69 bridge collapses, according to the Ministry of Transport. In 2015, prior to a nationwide crackdown, there were 750,000 traffic accidents involving the so-called “overweight killers”.
Part of the problem is that up to 78% of China’s freight is still transported by road. The number of trucks has dropped in recent years because older, more polluting vehicles are being phased out but the amounts of goods being carried are rising.
As a result, hauliers are illegally modifying their vehicles so they can carry more weight and bigger objects. They are also ignoring weight limits – preferring instead to pay the fine if they get caught. Fines range between Rmb200 ($28.2) and Rmb2,000 depending on the type of road the truck is travelling on and the degree to which it is overloaded.
However, it is not easy to test for overloading. Worse, the fine for a truck which is 100% or 200% overloaded is actually the same – encouraging drivers to load even more extreme amounts of cargo.
Adding to the problem is that most of China’s 30 million trucks are independently-owned, often by people with lower levels of education. According to a recent study by Tsinghua University around 80% of drivers hail from rural areas, and only 33% stayed in school past junior high.
These twin-characteristics mean the hauliers have little bargaining power – they don’t have the education to push for better prices and even if they did, the company wanting to move goods would just go to another small-time competitor. The main way to compensate for lower haulage rates is to overload.
If the haulage market was more consolidated it would allow national standards to be better enforced, Zuo Xinyu, secretary-general of the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, has said.
In addition there is the problem of overworked drivers and vehicles. Many drivers are at the wheel for up to 12 hours a day, according to the Tsinghua report, and another statistic suggests an average truck covers 300 kilometres a day.
In an article on China’s truckers last month, The Economist described them as “the unsung heroes of the economy” whose “toil helped China become a manufacturing juggernaut”. But the magazine also referred them to as “ticking bombs” – as their chronic sleep deprivation can lead to road accidents.
Yet targeting truck drivers directly is only part of the solution. In the aftermath of the Wuxi bridge collapse local media has called for more warning signs telling drivers when bridges can only carry limited loads. There are also calls for greater supervision and more weighing stations. “If the relevant departments strictly perform their duties, strictly guard against overloading and severely punish the vehicles for overloading, these tragedies can be avoided,” CCTV summed up.
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