The death of a man who was ejected from a motorcycle after a crash on southbound Interstate 395 and thrown into the Patapsco River marked the second fatality from a fall on the elevated highway in eight months.

Could higher barriers make the highway stretch safer?

Although parts of I-395 have fencing atop the waist-high concrete barriers that line the roadway, most of the elevated stretches linking downtown Baltimore with I-95 do not. In both crashes, it’s unclear if additional fencing could have prevented the victims from falling over the side.

A spokesperson for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees I-395, did not respond to a request for comment.

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“While the circumstances and cause of this crash remain under investigation, AAA is always concerned when a crash results in a driver leaving the roadway,” said Ragina Ali, a spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Sadly, we continue to see a significant number of traffic fatalities involving motorcyclists on our roadways, and with the weather getting warmer, this will likely be even more common, making it incumbent on all drivers to pay attention and exercise safe driving practices.”

At least 139 people have died on Maryland’s roadways this year, according to preliminary data. Maryland saw more than 600 roadway fatalities in 2023, its highest number in nearly two decades, and state transportation officials have been sounding the alarm for safer driving in work zones and beyond.

Here are things to know about the recent fatal crashes and the safety questions they raise.

2 fatal falls in 8 months

What led to Monday’s single-vehicle motorcycle crash is unclear and it remains under investigation, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

Police are investigating all aspects of the crash, including how fast the motorist was traveling when he was ejected from his black Kawasaki motorcycle and thrown over the concrete barrier. The motorcycle did not leave the roadway. Officials declined to speculate on how long their investigation — an intricate process that involves drone photography to reconstruct the crash scene — will take.

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In August, a good Samaritan was killed after he pulled over onto the narrow shoulder of southbound I-395 ramp to check on a disabled vehicle.

Robert Taylor Horne Jr., a security worker and once-aspiring police officer, was known to pull over to assist people with roadside car trouble. A drunk driver traveling at 101 mph smashed into one of the stopped vehicles, police said, and the impact caused Horne to fall from the elevated roadway into the water. An MDTA spokesperson called the crash “absolutely preventable.”

Barrier height vs. vehicle speed

The lattice of overpasses that connects downtown Baltimore to northbound and southbound I-95 causes many area drivers to tighten their grip on the steering wheel.

Jersey barriers separate vehicles from the water below; the posted 50 mph limit doesn’t prevent many drivers from speeding up as they take steep bridge grades and approach narrow curves.

“If a vehicle collides with a barrier at high speed and a specific angle, there’s a risk of it ramping up and over the wall,” said Mehdi Shokouhian, an associate professor with Morgan State University’s Department of Civil Engineering.

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Higher speeds and heavier vehicles add up to more severe impact, he said, meaning there’s a risk that a typical 4,000- to 6,000-pound concrete barrier could completely give way if struck with enough force.

Barriers serving as bridge rails vary in height based on road classification, the frequency of high-capacity truck traffic, maximum speed limits and other factors.

The Federal Highway Administration requires all bridges that are part of the National Highway System, including I-395, to comply with standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Minimum heights range from 27 to 42 inches — somewhere between 2 and 3½ feet — depending on the roadway.

Jersey barriers were also the only line of protection on the Francis Scott Key Bridge before it collapsed into the Patapsco River on March 26.

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The Chesapeake Bay Bridge uses two types of railing — a series of metal guardrails that form more or less the same shape as concrete Jersey barriers along the spans closest to shore, and a combination of Jersey barriers with a top guardrail along the highest spans.

Should the barriers be bigger?

Installing taller barriers adds more weight, “thereby reducing the overall load capacity of the bridge,” Shokouhian said.

The shape of Jersey walls aims to redirect vehicles back onto the roadway but can quickly fail when drivers hit them at high speeds.

A few sections of the I-395 bridges include chain-link fencing on top of the Jersey barriers.

Maryland’s State Highway Administration requires bridges over railroads to have such fencing — some sections of I-395 rise above light rail and freight rail lines.

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Such fencing is required over environmental features like the Patapsco River only when there is a threat of “overhead bombing” — items being thrown from the structure — according to SHA documents.

Also known as Cal Ripken Way, I-395 carried at least 106,000 vehicles on the average weekday in 2022, according to SHA data. Pre-pandemic daily totals were higher. Because so many vehicles take the curving bridges safely every day, the message to motorists may be a simple one — slow down and drive vigilantly.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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