You have likely heard of the Delaware Clankers.  At first you may have mistakenly thought they were a hockey team.  By now, you surely know that the clankers are instead a transportation innovation that fought off a corporate giant (at least for now) that threatened to close a critical roadway link in a bustling college town.

The story was shared last November 7th by Mark Luszcz, the Delaware Department of Transportation’s Deputy Director for Operations & Support.  For those who believe a DOT person can have no discernable sense of humor, the recording may change your view.  There’s nothing particularly funny about vehicle crashes, but when the same overpass is struck 78 times in 16 years, you have to shake your head and wonder and these days, memes and poems are the outlet of choice.

In this day and age, letters to the editor are a thing of the past and social media delivers sardonic criticism at the speed of light.  Born was the satirical Casho Mill River & Bay Authority (CMRBA), a satirical Facebook presence that relentlessly mocked You-Move drivers, contractors, professional truck drivers, the City of Newark, and DelDOT.  Even those who were the sometimes the target had to chuckle a bit at times.

But when the three-letter freight rail company started to rattle sabres about closing the underpass, CMRBA joined the chorus with state legislators, the City, and DelDOT, and all agreed, well, that’s not going to happen.  Some of the best ideas are borrowed or outright stolen and that’s what DelDOT set out to do because hanging overhead cans had some precedence, but they felt compelled to both improve its elegance a bit and elevate the loudness of the message.  In short, the baby steps attempted over the years were set aside, and as Steppenwolf said, they fired all their guns at once.

The details of what was designed (and then what was actually constructed) and the results as of last fall are much more interesting coming from Mark, so we will defer to the recording (and the slides Mark used).  But the results are dramatic.  Reducing the reported crashes from five to nine times per year…to zero speaks for itself.  Does this mean no one will ever hit the bridge again?  You can’t disregard the capacity for the truly bad vehicle operator, but at this point one would have a difficult time arguing that they didn’t know their vehicle wouldn’t fit.  Frankly, if you hit that overpass now, well, you’re just going to have to hand over your license.  It’s nothing personal, but we can’t have a menace like you out on the roads.  You’re a passenger now.

So is this seeming success an “innovation?”  Or is it sheer tenacity?  Probably a bit of both.  It is most certainly an aggressive adaptation.  But it is also an example of engineering judgement at its finest.  As engineers, we have to select the battles a bit carefully and that is part of the artform they can’t teach us in college.  Asked if the project conformed with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), Mark said, “I would say that our stuff is not MUTCD-compliant; I can say that with confidence; it violates several of the standards of that manual, and I don’t care, because it works.”

It doesn’t end there.  It’s a story of stakeholders working together.  State and local authorities always have a little bit of friction about some dumb thing that happened thirty years ago, but the City and the State came together because even combined, they were David to the Goliath.  They worked cooperatively to find a solution that they thought could work, because the alternative was unacceptable.

It’s the story of a government agency being willing to be part of the joke.  Some of the social media posts and memes before these changes were pretty rough, but they weren’t generally rude (as some of the public can sometimes be) and a little bit of thick skin got everyone through.  Instead of becoming defensive in the face of sarcasm, the City and DelDOT leaned into it and laughed along.  That just expanded the united front, because everyone could claim a little bit of credit.

And it’s a story of stakeholders finding humor where you’re not supposed to because someone thinks you’re not taking it seriously.  They were taking it seriously…and if getting the message across was best served with a giggle, so be it.

And it generated a new state holiday – Short Bridge Awareness Day (August 7).

The problem is that the clankers don’t clank.  They’re made of rather unaffending, soft material (they are nautical buoys) and so, at best, they…bonk.  But “the bonkers” doesn’t have that same nuanced elegance that clankers does and it doesn’t matter because the name stuck and if the community says they clank, than by golly, they clank.  At this point, the clankers have become the unofficial mascot of Newark and the various holidays have found a host of creative ways to incorporate and celebrate what city residents consider uniquely theirs.

Kaboom!  But the big, orange balls are only one part of the story.  Incrementally, the warning signs had become larger, bolder, and more insistent over the years.  Well, time to go for broke.  And it’s not just the size of the sign that took it over the top.  For those of you out there that consider yourselves MUTCD geeks, we ask, how many times does it mention the word “kaboom?”  Spoiler alert, not once.  And the suggestion of putting kaboom on a traffic control device would send most transporation professionals into a fetal position, muttering “V-E-R, Vern, definitely, definitely not in the MUTCD, definitely not supposed to change the sign.  Vern, these people are going to be here all day.”

Was it the size of the sign that made it so “in your face” or was it the kaboom?  We don’t know and who cares?  It’s fun to just have a reason to say kaboom in an engineering meeting, so…winning!

And there were six or eight other contributory elements, albeit less sexy and less fun, that Mark briefly walks through and the point is, it is clearly a system of tools that made this work so far.  So far.  Well, okay, a contractor cut it a little close with a new truck that was higher than his old one and the bubble-gum-machine-looking, rotating, magetic light thing on the roof got knocked off.  Officially, we’re not counting that, because it didn’t damage the sign.  Asked about the sign on March 7, 2024 at the Lesson’s Learned Workshop, Mark reported that the sign was still “pristine.”


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