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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

This report is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information
Publication Number: FHWA-RD-01-020
Date: June 2001

Reliability of Visual Inspection for Highway Bridges

Volume I: Final Report

Volume II: Appendices

  Chapters 1-4 (PDF - 1,381 KB)

  Chapter 5

    -Section 5.1-5.2 (PDF - 1,290 KB)

    -Section 5.3 (PDF - 631KB)

    -Section 5.4 (PDF - 2,524 KB)

  Chapters 6-7, References (PDF - 120 KB)


Visual Inspection is the predominant nondestructive evaluation technique used in bridge inspections. However, since implementation of the National Bridge Inspection Standards in 1971, a comprehensive study of the reliability of Visual Inspection as it relates to highway bridge inspections has not been conducted.The goals of the study include: providing overall measures of the accuracy and reliability of Routine and In-Depth Visual Inspections, studying the influence of several key factors that affect Routine and In-Depth Inspections, and studying the differences between State inspection procedures and reports. 

Ten inspection tasks were performed at seven test bridges using State bridge inspectors. The sample of participating inspectors included 49 inspectors from 25 State agencies. Inspectors were provided with common information, instruction, and tools. Inspector characteristics were measured through self-report questionnaires, interviews, and direct measurements. 

Routine Inspections were completed with significant variability, and the Condition Ratings assigned varied over a range of up to five different ratings. It is predicted that only 68 percent of the Condition Ratings will vary within one rating point of the average, and 95 percent will vary within two points. Factors that appeared to correlate with Routine Inspection results include Fear of Traffic; Visual Acuity and Color Vision; Light Intensity; Inspector Rushed Level; and perceptions of Maintenance, Complexity, and Accessibility.

 In-Depth Inspections using Visual Inspection alone are not likely to detect or identify the specific types of defects for which the inspection is prescribed, and may not reveal deficiencies beyond those that could be noted during a Routine Inspection. The overall thoroughness with which inspectors completed one of the In-Depth tasks tended to have an impact on the likelihood of an inspector detecting weld crack indications. Other factors that may be related to In-Depth Inspection accuracy include: time to complete inspection, comfort with access equipment and heights, structure complexity and accessibility, viewing of welds, flashlight use, and number of annual inspections performed. 

The State procedural and reporting tasks indicated that most States follow similar procedural and reporting criteria. Several inconsistencies were noted with the use of the element-level inspection systems, but it is not known if these variations are the result of State practices or inspector use. Deck delamination surveys were found to have significant variability, with only a few teams performing a delamination survey as part of the Routine Inspection.

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