Importance of Inspecting Private Bridges
The Federal, State and local governments have set in place a schedule and procedure for the inspection of public bridges. The purpose of regular inspections is to document its condition to determine the capacity of the bridge for future use, closing a bridge that can no longer safely support traffic loads, identifying issues for repair before repair becomes expensive, determining the probable service life of the bridge so that the cost of replacement can be considered in future budgets, etc. The inspections are commonly performed by highway engineering companies under the supervision of a Professional Engineer practicing in the structural engineering discipline and reports are commonly prepared on the condition observed.
What is a private bridge? It is a bridge that services a private drive or roadway. They are commonly constructed by past experience, that is, what has worked previously, and without the review of a Professional Engineer or any type of design considerations, and thus, the rated capacity of these generally unknown. They are rarely inspected by anyone let alone a structural engineer. No one really knows how many of these private bridges are in use.
Although these bridges are only intended for private vehicles, which are relatively light, they occasionally are used by emergency vehicles, such as, ambulances or fire trucks to gain access to an emergency scene. Ambulances and fire trucks are not light vehicles and emergency personnel are usually not required to traverse a bridge that looks questionable with regard to its condition.
Some local governments require the owner to have a regular inspection performed (for example, every five by an engineer) to verify the condition of the bridge and then post signage to identify the load rating for use by their emergency vehicles and/or other commercial vehicles. Most do not have any requirements.
In the latter case, regular voluntary inspection by the owner or his/her representative could help to avoid a calamity. For example, see the condition of the bridge in Figures 1 through 3.
Amazingly, this bridge did not collapse totally under the weight of private vehicles or a cement truck. By the way, the top side of the bridge appeared to be in very good condition (see feature photograph). It appeared so good that even I foolishly drove over it and then prayed as I drove back across after my examination.
A law is not required to exercise good sense. Please have someone with an understanding of bridge construction inspect the condition of your bridge from the underside and then get professional help as deemed necessary to make your bridge safe. Your safety or your life may depend upon it.