As It Happens

North Carolina 'can opener' bridge to be raised after years of shearing tops off trucks

For years a bridge in Durham, N.C., with a nearly four-metre clearance has been known to catch truck drivers unawares, stopping them in their tracks as they collide with the crash beam — and Jurgen Henn has been meticulously documenting the collisions on video.

Jurgen Henn recorded more than 100 collisions involving rail bridge with nearly 4-metre clearance

A truck collides into a bridge in Durham, N.C., on Feb. 24. The bridge, colloquially known as 'the can opener,' will finally be raised by 20 centimetres after years of causing havoc among unsuspecting drivers of trucks and large vehicles. (11foot8/YouTube)
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In business, low overhead is a good thing. But when you're driving a truck through an underpass, it's everything but.

For years a bridge in Durham, N.C., with a 3.6-metre clearance has been known to catch truck drivers unawares, stopping them in their tracks as they collide with the crash beam — or sometimes shearing off the top of their trailer entirely.

It's become known as "the can opener" bridge as a result.

Last week, Durham's transportation department announced that the bridge will be raised by approximately 20 centimetres to hopefully avoid more automotive embarrassments and potential injuries.

"The can opener just kind of sits there waiting with very low clearance, much lower than many truck drivers seem to expect," Durham resident Jurgen Henn told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And when they don't pay attention, the can opener sits there to pounce on them."

In 2008, Henn set up a webcam overlooking the intersection where the can opener sits. Since then he's documented more than 100 collisions — and uploads a new incident to his YouTube channel about once a month, he says.

"Very often the impact takes off part of the roof. So there's debris scattered all over the road. And often the truck just gets kind of stuck under the crash beam in front ... that protects the bridge from the impact," he said.

"A few months ago, actually, a semi[-trailer] truck hit the bridge at full speed and peeled off most of the roof. That's pretty rare. And it was pretty spectacular."

Jurgen Henn stands by the 'can opener' bridge alongside one of its recent vehicular victims. (Submitted by Jurgen Henn)

Most drivers who get stuck are able to let some air out of their tires to get through safely, said Henn. But sometimes heavier equipment will need to be called in to extract the vehicle.

Thankfully, he said, he hasn't seen anyone suffer serious or life-threatening injuries.

"I had to call 911 once to get an ambulance because one of the passengers in the truck was not buckled in and hit his forehead against the windshield and probably got a concussion," he said.

"Other than that, I've heard of somebody breaking a leg. So all in all, nothing that won't heal."

Watch as this semi-trailer truck smashes into the 'can opener' bridge.

Warning signs aplenty

Henn noted that there are plenty of warning signs for drivers to properly avoid a nasty collision with the overpass, including low-clearance warning signs at several intersections leading up to it.

There's even a laser to detect over-height vehicles that, once tripped, will signal warning lights telling the driver to stop. An intersection right before the bridge allows savvy drivers to take a new path to avoid certain disaster.

Henn observed that the collisions frequently involve rental trucks, which suggested to him that the drivers may not be familiar with the truck's height.

The can opener bridge has been the subject of news coverage over the years, from local stations and larger outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Jalopnik.

Its legend has continued to grow among the population. A local bar even designed a miniature golf course hole that mimicks a yellow truck firmly ensconced in the overpass.

A mini golf set based on the can opener overpass is seen at Bull City Mini, a mini golf course and bar in Durham, N.C. (11foot8/Facebook)

Larger semi-trailer trucks still won't be able to make it past the bridge's new planned height of approximately 3.8 metres.

"But they're also usually driven by more experienced drivers. So I think it's going to be a big safety improvement," Henn said.

On social media, some residents lamented the raising of the bridge. Henn says he's seen some people put flowers in front of it, akin to a memorial.

"But in the end, I think safety is probably the biggest priority," he said. "We can always remember it fondly."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Morgan Passi.

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