MOUNT VERNON — Pilot car drivers perform a critical safety role for tractor-trailers that haul oversized loads, experts in the field said this week.

While it is not yet known what role the pilot car driver played in last week’s bridge collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating and intends to interview the pilot car driver.

Frequent communication is key between escort vehicles and large commercial loads, said Eric Tofte, director of training at the Evergreen Safety Council. He oversees training programs for pilot car drivers and the people who teach them.

State law, safety and common sense should guide pilot car drivers, he said.

While state law does not outline a minimum distance between the pilot car and load, Tofte said there has to be enough room for the driver to avoid a collision with an obstacle — especially if a load might not fit under a bridge.

A commercial load clipped several trusses of the Interstate 5 bridge on May 23, sending one span, two vehicles and a trailer crashing into the Skagit River below. No one was seriously injured.

A state bridge database that truckers use as a reference says the bridge height is between 14-foot-5 and 17-foot-3 in the southbound lane.

The tractor-trailer that struck the bridge had a permit from the state Department of Transportation for a 15-foot-9 load.

That alone should have given pause to the pilot car driver and the truck driver, Tofte said. The Evergreen Safety Council helps educate the trainers who train pilot car drivers and also has classes for pilot car drivers. Pilot car driver training can be completed in an eight-hour day and concludes with a 50-question test, he said.

Tofte was once a pilot car driver, and he said that drivers might ask a trucker to wait while they scout the route ahead. They might also drive ahead of the load much slower, microphone in hand ready to call out a potential bridge strike.

For pilot cars with a height pole, the pole itself has to be 3- to 6-inches higher than the load’s actual height, Tofte said. Some height poles have alarms. Some drivers install a mirror on the front of the car to better see the height pole if it strikes something, or they look through a sun roof.

“They should be checking any visual on the height pole” as they cross beneath an overheight hazard, Tofte said. “In my day I could be hollering ‘strike’ or ‘hit’ within two or three seconds.”

Trucks regularly strike the Skagit River Bridge, NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said Sunday. The last known strike occurred on Oct. 22, 2012, in the northbound lane. The damage was repaired a month later.

This time, the tractor-trailer was hauling a drilling equipment housing from Alberta, Canada, to Vancouver, Wash. The truck driver told the NTSB he did not hear anything from the pilot car driver and did not see the pole move. The NTSB and State Patrol have not released details about the pilot car driver. As of Wednesday, she had not been interviewed extensively by anyone.

Jay Hardy, general manager of Biddix Co., said Thursday that a rear pilot car may have prevented the truck from striking the bridge. Biddix Co. trains truck drivers from its office on Old Highway 99.

State law requires a front and rear pilot car to guide oversized loads through two-lane highways, but only a lead pilot car was required across the Skagit River Bridge.

Hardy said communication is key, and a good rear pilot car driver would have straddled the two south-bound lanes, forcing other cars and trucks to wait until the load safely crossed the bridge.

Hersman said Saturday that the truck driver “also reported that there was another commercial vehicle traveling in the left lane as he was on the bridge.”

Hardy said it was “silly” that state law doesn’t require a rear pilot car for overheight vehicles, and that such a car could have prevented the load from getting crowded and striking the bridge.

But an extra pilot car “comes down to a cost issue, too,” Hardy said. “But how much does it cost to replace a bridge?”

State and federal officials have estimated about $15 million to replace this span.

Meanwhile, Trooper Mark Francis said State Patrol wants to interview the pilot car driver in more detail. The pilot car driver has not been cited for a crime, and her name or company have not been released.

The pilot car was not impounded, Francis said. Troopers took measurements of the pilot car, a Dodge Ram pickup truck, at the scene and the NTSB will also take a set of measurements, which will include the height pole attached to the front right bumper.

- Reporter Kate Martin: 360-416-2145, kmartin@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kate_SVH, facebook.com/KateReports.

Staff writer Gina Cole contributed to this report.

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