Abstract Damage detection in civil engineering constructions using the dynamic system parameters has become an important research topic. A direct, fast and inexpensive method is therefore required to evaluate and localize damage using the change in dynamic parameters between the intact and damage states. This paper investigates the application of the change in modal curvatures to detect damage in a prestressed concrete bridge. To establish the method simply supported and continuous beams containing damaged parts at different locations are tested using simulated data. Some important conclusions concerning the computation of the modal curvatures are drawn. A damage indicator called “curvature damage factor” is introduced, in which the difference in curvature mode shape for all modes can be summarized in one number for each measured point. The technique is further applied to a real structure, namely bridge Z24 which lies between the villages Koppigen and Utzenstorf and crosses the highway A1 between Bern and Zurich in Switzerland. In the framework of a Brite-Euram project, the bridge is used as a full-scale specimen and subjected to different damage scenarios in order to introduce damage.