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Truckers may see cowbells make a comeback in Mass.

Devices warned of low overpasses

A cowbell is suspended from the back of a sign on a ramp from Longfellow Bridge to Memorial Drive in Cambridge.
A cowbell is suspended from the back of a sign on a ramp from Longfellow Bridge to Memorial Drive in Cambridge. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)

Musicians play them. Ski fans bang them. Farmers tie them to heifers.

Now, state officials may use cowbells to help solve a curiously persistent transportation problem: trucks that crash into the low Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive bridges despite the abundant signs warning them away.

Frustrated that truckers are blowing right by the signs, the Department of Conservation and Recreation says it may revive a homegrown network of cowbells to give the drivers a musical wake-up call.

The system was first installed in the 1980s when the state chained cowbells - no fancier than the kind used by farmers - to rubber flaps that said "Cars Only" and hung them from "Low Clearance" signs along the busy roads. Truckers who did not heed the warnings hit the flaps and heard the cowbells clang in enough time to stop before they rammed overpasses.

But years of neglect, punishing storms, and passing trucks have all but silenced the rustic warning system. These days, few cowbells remain, their rusted clappers dangling by the Longfellow Bridge and MIT, but most are long gone. Now, as the state prepares to replace a few of the missing rubber flaps, officials say they may redeploy the cowbells along the roads from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge on Storrow Drive and to Magazine Beach on Memorial Drive.

"Some folks are saying maybe we could put bells back on so that the truck drivers really notice the signs," said Wendy Fox, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. "Right now, bumping into the overhead rubber signs apparently doesn't do it for them and sometimes the bells going off might get their attention and prevent them from hitting or getting stuck under a bridge."

At a time when global positioning system-equipped cars zip through tollbooths with FastLane transponders, the use of cowbells evokes a simpler era of horse-drawn carriages and dirt roads. But some truckers and transportation specialists embraced the humble farm tool as an easy way to prevent truck drivers from crashing into bridges.

"Cowbells? I suppose that'll do it," said John DeFazio, owner of First Call Trucking in Boston. "Whatever it takes to warn those guys not to take those boulevards."

DeFazio knows. Driving in the 1960s, he did not realize until it was too late that his truck was just slightly taller than the 10-foot 9-inch ceiling of the Storrow Tunnel.

"All I can remember is the feeling of impending doom," DeFazio said. "I slowed down as fast as I could and the truck kind of wiggled through. . . I was sweating bullets."

But some specialists said the use of cowbells could be dangerous.

"I don't like it at all," said Thomas Hicks, director of the office of traffic and safety at the Maryland Department of Transportation who serves on a national panel of highway engineers. "It might fly off and run into somebody's windshield and a cowbell is usually pretty substantial steel."

Anne Lynch, executive director of the Massachusetts Motor Transportation Association, the state trucking lobby, wondered whether truckers with the windows up and motor running would hear a ringing cowbell. Nevertheless, she said, "it's probably a cost-effective measure."

The original cowbell alert system on Storrow and Memorial drives was the brainchild of William J. Geary, who served from 1983 to 1989 as commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission, which then managed the roads. Trucks in that era hit the bridges about every two weeks, and more frequently in the fall, when college students returned to Boston in rental trucks, Geary said. Typically, bridges have clearances of about 15 feet, but the bridges on Storrow and Memorial drives range from 12 feet 8 inches where Storrow Drive passes under Massachusetts Avenue to 9 feet 9 inches where Memorial Drive passes eastbound under the same street.

Inspired by parking garages, which use hanging bars to warn of low clearance, Geary approved the use of hanging rubber flaps on the "Low Clearance" signs on Storrow and Memorial. Then he wanted something extra to jolt forgetful truckers.

"I was trying to think of anything that would make a loud noise without inflicting damage on someone's body or a windshield and the cowbell came to mind," Geary said. He ordered his aides to call a farming supply store and order two cowbells each for the back of about 40 rubber flaps.

"I do remember Procurement sending back a memo to me saying, 'Commissioner, are you sure you're really looking for cowbells?' " Geary said. "And I said, 'Yes, I'm sure.' "

The bells went up in 1985 or 1986, Geary said. Together with the rubber flaps, they virtually eliminated truck crashes, he said.

"The system worked, but it's not going to work if the system isn't maintained," Geary said.

These days, a truck hits a bridge on Storrow or Memorial drives about every three weeks, Fox said. Trucks crashing into the Storrow Tunnel have damaged beams and accelerated calls for its repair or replacement, which could cost as much as $130 million.

As officials search for longer-term, higher-tech solutions, Geary said the state should bring back the cowbells.

"There's no more flowers along the road, too - that was my other program," Geary said. "But safety certainly trumps flowers."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: A low-tech system

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