By on August 15, 2016

overloaded truck (Gavin Bell/Flickr)

Whether it’s a poorly tied-down college mattress taking flight like a ungraceful, soiled bird, or scrap metal launching itself out of a pickup bed after hitting a pothole, debris is piling up on U.S. roads, and drivers are dying because of it.

According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, crashes caused by road debris rose 40 percent in the past 15 years. America’s loads have never been looser.

The study analyzed specific crashes: those resulting from collisions with debris, or by swerving to avoid it. Naturally occurring debris like animals, rocks and storm-tossed tree branches didn’t count. With this study, the only debris that matters fell out of — or off of — a vehicle.

Between 2011 and 2014, more than 200,000 crashes occurred as a result of other people’s property lying in the road. Those crashes led to more than 39,000 injuries and over 500 deaths. In total, 37 percent of the deaths occurred when a driver swerved to avoid a chunk of road-bound debris.

It’s a growing  problem, despite the fact that “all of these crashes are preventable,” said Jurek Grabowski, the foundation’s research director. “Drivers can easily save lives and prevent injuries by securing their loads and taking other simple precautions to prevent items from falling off the vehicle.”

Most of the crashes involved the three most common types of road debris — parts falling off a vehicle (wheels, etc), cargo detaching itself from a vehicle, and towed trailers coming loose. Interstates are hotbeds of lost mattresses and microwaves, the study found. That’s not surprising, given the volume of traffic and the elevated speeds (which are perfect for turning furniture into aircraft).

One-third of debris-related crashes take place between 10 a.m. and 3:59 p.m. — work hours, essentially, and when most hauling happens. The foundation recommends that drivers scan the road ahead of them for debris, and urges others to tie down their loads securely.

For lazy motorists who subscribe to the well, this should probably work philosophy, AAA wants you to know that 16 states list jail terms as a possibly penalty for at-fault motorists.

[Image: Gavin Bell/Flickr]

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63 Comments on “Dropping Junk All Over the Road: A Growing American Pastime...”


  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I had a teacher in high school who was out for eight weeks because someone in a pickup truck that she was following dropped a rear-projection TV and a large sofa onto the road, and she impacted it with her 2002 Honda Civic.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “Fell off the back of a truck.” A lot more pickup trucks on the roads in recent years.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      That’s how I got my new stereo for $150, when it was worth $2,000. It fell off a truck. Don’t tell anybody, though; they said they can’t offer that deal to just *anyone.*

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      bumpy,

      You are correct, it’s mostly down to the number of pickups on the road. Most pickup drivers have no clue how to tie-down and secure a load.

      I understand why the urban cowboys do it, they barely ever use the bed. The biggest issue in my area is professionals.
      One driver was actually beheaded a few years back because of something that fell off a landscaping truck. I know a guy who worked that scene, and he says it’s the most horrible thing he ever saw.

      • 0 avatar
        RevengencerAlf

        I think its less about not knowing how and more about not even caring. The prevailing attitude I’ve seen is “well I’ve got a pickup truck so it’s all good.” They just assume the bed is a giant container they can just dump anything in and consider it safe.

  • avatar
    mason

    I passed a fruit cake hauling a 35 series Kubota with 6 ft brush hog on the back….with no chain binders. My passenger tried getting a picture of his liscense plate as we passed him on the free way but he had no front license plate (illegal). I slowed enough to let him pass me back to get a shot of the trailer plate, which was also missing.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I once hit a large oil tank that fell off a Semi , it was 0~Dark:30 and i was driving my 1967 MGB GT ~ that damn tank was spinning and sliding left to right , I tried swerving to avoid it but it bounced off a guardrail and I ran over it , nearly flipping my car and denting the underside badly .
    .
    I was expecting this story to be about the mind boggling amount of illegal trash dumping I now see _EVERYWHERE_ ~ in the City , on Rural back roads , in the Interstate F’chrissakes .
    .
    Have some self respect .
    .
    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      TDIGuy

      Trash dumping… we see more and more of this, especially around cities that charge you for going over your limit.

      Biggest problem on the highways around here seems to be the remnants of exploded truck tires.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick_515

        Yup. Lost my underpan last week to half a freaking truck tire lying in the middle of 91 north of Hartford. Was doing 80 and decided to just strike it instead of risk spinning around by sawing at the wheel. Luckily no other damage.

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        Lots of retreads lost where I am! (Had one go right next to me once: just about wet myself, and had to pull over to check for damage — none.) Witnessed a lady in the next lane run right over a traffic cone!

        Toledo was noteworthy in the late-’90s, IIRC, when we had several cars flattened by unsecured rolls of steel on the freeways around town. All isolated incidents, not from one company in particular.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    You’re supposed to be on vacation!

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    The main problem with saying “You’ll get in trouble.” is -proving- the vehicle who dropped said part. When whatever it is falls off, only three or four people driving in the near lanes are going to be a witness. then, you’ve just got a muffler on the road from unknown car for the rest of the day after that.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Friend #1 struck a tire/rim laying on the road, which destroyed her Grand Prix’s engine, transmission, radiator, A/C, suspension, and frame. The car was totaled with almost no exterior damage.

    Friend #2 struck a moving truck ramp on the PA turnpike, sending his PT Cruiser airborne. Luckily, all he got was two bent wheels.

    Friend #3 struck a muffler, with no apparent damage. Later, she learned that one of the rear control arms on her Focus was bent by many degrees, creating a toe-out condition that ate tires in a few thousand miles.

    Friend #4 struck a 4×4 laying sideways on the road (during a snowstorm), and his Subaru went airborne. Both front tires were flattened. The funny part was that although he actually had *two* spare tires in the car at the time, he had no jack with which to change them. So he had to endure the humiliation of having his AWD Subaru towed in a snowstorm.

    The worst I’ve hit was a dead deer, which the 18-wheeler in front of me straddled without trouble. With no time to react, my minivan skinned it, leaving me with smelly shreds of venison all over the undercarriage, but thankfully no damage.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    I have a bigger bitch.

    What about legal garbage like recapped tires?

    What in heck is the difference between somebody having stuff fly out from a pick up truck with the horrid recapped debris all over our roads?
    Which is more dangerous?

    Two years ago I lost the front end of our new 13 Escape from a recap flying from a passing flat bed going 55 mpr plus in the opposite lane of a single lane hwy here in MO. My wife could see it fly off and whip towards her but she could go nowhere or do anything.
    Crap…it smashed the front end all to hell.

    Why are these lying all over our roads and IF they come off so easily…why are they even legal at all? How are such dangerous tires allowed onto trucks while other regulations kill all fun in driving and force car prices into the stratosphere?

    Government suck..or lobbyist suck. Maybe both.

    • 0 avatar
      Whittaker

      Riding my Yamaha, semi about 100 yards ahead threw a full tread way up in the air. Longest 5 seconds of my life until I saw it was going to land behind me.
      Years later, driving a Honda Pilot when a aluminum extension ladder blew off the pickup in front of me an settled across both westbound lanes of a divided highway. I was able to swerve to the berm. Before I could move the lader a semi ran over it at high speed. Gray ladder on a gray road. He told me later he didn’t see it until he was on top of it.
      Sliced up his hydraulic lines and broke the ladder into more than a dozen pieces. During breaks in the traffic I would dart out and clean up as many pieces as I could but before I was done at least 20 cars flew through the debris sending sharp metal into the air like autumn leaves to clang off the cars following. Nobody except the semi driver stopped though I suspect they were wary of the goofy man in the Ohio State shirt frantically waving his arms above his head in the steady rain.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      A few months ago I hit a full super-single retread lying in the road. I was towing my travel trailer at 55mph at 10pm on a dark undivided 4 lane highway lined with trees on both sides. Tire was lying dead center of the right lane just over a rise in the pavement so my headlights didn’t hit it until too late. Plus, swerving radically with a trailer is perilous on its own. I did effect an emergency lane change (pro tip, floor the accelerator to keep the trailer in line), but my passenger rocker panel struck the tire and kicked it up, smacking it into the lower front face of my trailer since it is wider than the truck. Good sized dent in the aluminum plus rubber marks on the trailer, but no water leaks thankfully.

      A couple weeks ago on I95 north I saw a couple semis make a huge dust cloud ahead in the southbound lanes. It didn’t look like tire smoke, until a chunk of retread comes flying airborne behind one of the trucks. I’m lucky I noticed it as it was *way* overhead and I had to lean forward to track it through my windshield, and I’m lucky no one was to my right as I had to swerve to avoid it hitting my car. It just missed my side view mirror landing in the center of my lane, and the pickup behind me was able to straddle it.

      When I was a kid one of my assistant scoutmasters’ Neon was struck by a loose aluminum ladder. It fell off a truck a few vehicles ahead of him, and the brodozer two vehicles ahead of him drove right through the rungs before kicking it airborne. It bounced off the top corner of his windshield/roof/drivers side A-pillar before landing on the shoulder.

      I also had the pleasure of once panic braking to avoid having my truck hood damaged by concrete falling from under an overpass bridge. My rear brakes locked up (non-ABS drums in trucks are great for that) and the concrete sliced one of my tires.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Open pickups and towed boats are the most frequent offenders. Over the years, I’ve seen towed open boats full of vacation gear spew detritus all over I-95 in DE after emergency braking where the towing vehicle side swipes another car or the rig jack knifes when forced to stop because of an accident in progress. I avoid travelling that road during the summer if at all possible. To me, it’s the driving equivalent of Ebola.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Look you upon the might of the small pickup!

  • avatar
    orenwolf

    Interesting that the majority of injuries come from avoidance tactics. While of course every situation is unique, I wonder how many injuries or lives could be saved by teaching threshold brake-and-avoid and skid recovery, versus the almost certainly more common “jerk the wheel sharply at highway speeds” approach.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      “threshold brake-and-avoid ”

      As almost all cars now have ABS, I believe your best bet is to stand on the brakes and avoid.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        Unless you’re real familiar with drifting, stand on the brakes and pray. Except most thing sitting on the road, aren’t solid or heavy enough to cause injury. It’s the light boxes and bags full of plastic toys, pillows, glassware, and stuffed animals that gain “lift” and leave the truck.

      • 0 avatar
        orenwolf

        That’s a good question. I’m of the main best that knowing that brake force has to be reduced the more aggressive the turning radius is, represents information that is still useful even in the ABS era, and if I had to turn sharply to avoid a road obstruction, I’d probably lean on the brakes with all my might for as long as I could safely, then let off as I steered to avoid as per traditional threshold braking training. Would I be doing myself a disservice from an ABS perspective? I honestly don’t know.

        • 0 avatar
          DenverMike

          I came up in the pre ABS days, so I’ll still completely let up on the brakes at the last possible second and drive or drift around it.

          Pre ABS, I’d yank the wheel and lock up the brakes, putting the car into a rotating skid, clockwise or counter, depending on where the best exit was, so at the last split second, I’d let off the brakes, wheels straightened, and my car would shoot in the direction it was pointed, around and avoiding the errant car or large object.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Frankly, your advice is terrible. For most road debris, the solution is to STAY IN YOUR LANE and stand on your brake pedal, letting ABS and your tires do their best.

      Few people have the experience/frequent refresher practice making a maneuver like you suggest, meaning that at best, they’ll run into an embankment; at worst, they’ll slam into other cars (or trees/light poles/etc.) trying to avoid debris that is rarely large enough to cause injury. (Yes, I know that there exists debris that can kill, but most debris is not in that category.)

      Any insurance adjuster will tell you that if you see something, like a deer, on the road, the safest course is to go through it. (They actively encourage this behavior; you go through a deer and *bleep!* up your car, you’ll pay a small Comprehensive deductible and go on with your life. You swerve around the deer and *bleep!* up your car, you get to pay a Collision deductible and they’ll raise your rates the next year.)

      • 0 avatar
        orenwolf

        “Few people have the experience/frequent refresher practice making a maneuver like you suggest,”

        I know. That’s why my comment essentially started with “since diverting kills, I wonder if training would help”. :)

      • 0 avatar
        carlisimo

        Just don’t “go through” a kangaroo if you’re driving in Australia – they’re tall enough to end up in the cabin, where their massive claws will shred you to pieces as they flail in their death throes.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        I also suggested standing on the brakes and praying, for most drivers. But not all situations are alike. If enough speed is scrubbed off, there’s and open lane, steer around the *bleepin’* hazard. A buck landing in your lap could ruin your suit.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    In 2004, a car in front of me on I-90 tossed a large piece of metal, source undetermined, into the air. It landed directly in front of my nearly new Acura TSX. Both right tires passed over it way before I could have reacted, damaging the right front tire beyond repair. The rear tire threw the metal upward, perforating the rear bumper. I paid ~$1200 for a new OEM Michelin tire and a deductible, and my insurance company paid about $800 more for a new bumper and some paint work.

    In 2007, driving a Buick LaCrosse rental on a 50 mph semi-freeway late at night, I saw what looked like a chunk of tire directly in front of me. It turned out not to be a chunk of tire but the dark bottom side of an old salvaged iron sink. I slowed way down, but wasn’t able to stop in time, and the sink knocked the front fascia askew and broke a fog light. Miraculously, even though I didn’t have LDW, the rental company failed to charge me for the damage. They made up for it a year later when they tried to charge me for a windshield crack that happened spontaneously overnight while the rental Impala SS was parked.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Now I want to know which company is so generous with their damage thing.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        As usual with my rentals, it was National… but I think it was just an employee who couldn’t be ar$ed to bother with the paperwork, not company policy. See windshield crack incident a year later. I suspect that Buick went to quite a few more customers with a gumpy bumper and broken foglight.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    The 3rd world called; welcome!

  • avatar
    Corollaman

    Around these parts, rocks dropping off dump trucks are responsible for sending more business to the Safelite folks than anything else,

  • avatar
    JLGOLDEN

    I’ve mostly received damage from impacts with flying “peeled-off” tire tread strips. Damages while I was piloting include: gouged the bumper on my 2004 Grand Prix, Dented LF fender on my 2008 Sierra, took out the lower grille and active grille shutters on a friend’s 2014 MKZ, gouged header panel on my 2015 Impala. Damn. Tire. Strips.

  • avatar
    Corollaman

    One simple rule to follow, when you see an old, overloaded pickup truck that reminds you of Sanford and Son, get the hell away from behind it.

  • avatar
    SP

    Late one night, I came across a gray bumper cover laying across the middle of a gray freeway. I wasn’t sure if the lane beside me was clear enough to take evasive action, so I had to just brake and hope for the best. I could slow down, but not quite stop in time. Well, it did about $2,000 damage to the front end of the Mazda5 I was driving.

    My question was, “Who leaves a bumper cover lying in the middle of the highway?”

    It wasn’t until later that I thought of checking to see if the license plate was still on the bumper. (So I could possibly get my insurance deductible back.) But it was gone the next day.

    My impression was that it was probably from a Ford E-series, in which case the license plate wouldn’t have been mounted there anyway.

    My best guess is that the bumper came from a damaged car that had been towed, and the wind caught the damaged bumper and tore it the rest of the way off.

    Which, if my car had been damaged enough to require a tow, could have led to some interesting Moebius-strip recurring loops.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    That pickup looks amazing. Anyone know what it is?

  • avatar
    CobraJet

    I was traveling in Western Arkansas on I 40 and began to overtake a pickup pulling a double-axle flat trailer. The trailer was empty except for an unsecured fully inflated spare tire lying in the middle of the bed. The road was rough and the empty trailer was bouncing and jumping. I noticed the spare tire was working its way to the back of the trailer with each bump. It was getting close to the back of the trailer which had no tailgate so I sped up and got alongside the driver to try to get his attention. Then it happened. The tire bounced off the trailer, stood straight up and began to roll at 70 mph. Soon it crossed the median and was rolling in the other lane toward oncoming traffic. By a stroke of luck it finally left the roadway and crashed into the woods without hurting anyone.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    I lost my 1994 Ford Aerostar Sport to a fire as the direct result of running over debris that fell off a trailer (that was unavoidable).

    Something (I don’t really know what because the fire destroyed it) got caught between the exhaust manifold and the engine bay insulation and started a fire. The damage was not too major, but it did destroy the wiring harness before I got it put out. It was still running (very poorly) when I shut it down, but it never ran again.

    I ended up sending it to the crusher. That was easily my favorite Aerostar, it was excellent transportation and mobile toolbox. I had planned on doing a manual trans conversion on it, but oh well.

  • avatar
    redapple

    Truckers call them alligator skins.
    They WANT – They let the tire disintegrate and spray off the rim at speed.
    Easier to get the new tire on a bare rim.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    In Cincinnati I was caught in rush hour madness. A truck out in front of me lost a large and long metal bar: it hit the ground, bounced up in the air, and then landed right in front of me. Due to the traffic there was nowhere to go but over it.

    Amazingly nothing happened other than a bump. I pulled over as soon as I could, air gauge in hand but everything turned out okay. No damage to the tires.

    Then there was the 2X4 in the middle of the highway – one with several nails – that gave me a front tire leak.

    And the number of nails I manage to pick up.

    And the time I had a wide board fly off a truck and strike my windshield flat on. Amazingly the glass the didn’t break and there was only a slight scuff on the paint.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Your experience can be titled “Every Day On 75 in Cincinnati.” It’s why I find myself taking 275 or 71 whenever possible. I really don’t like driving on 75.

    • 0 avatar

      I got a flat a few years back when I had the Ranger driving in Northern VA. Turns out I had run over a wrench which had somehow implanted itself vertically into the tire.

      Talk about throwing a monkey wrench into my day.

      • 0 avatar
        cdotson

        “I got a flat a few years back when I had the Ranger driving in Northern VA. Turns out I had run over a wrench which had somehow implanted itself vertically into the tire”

        There’s all kinds of tools running around loose in NoVA. Thanks for taking one out for the rest of us.

  • avatar

    “For lazy motorists who subscribe to the well, this should probably work philosophy, AAA wants you to know that 16 states list jail terms as a possibly penalty for at-fault motorists.”

    It should be all fifty. I’ll never forget the day some kind of steel or aluminum door some idiot had dropped in the road was run over by the truck in front of me, putting said obstacle in a standing position right in the middle of the yellow stripes. It was crazy. Said door impacted along the driver’s side door of my 2000 Elantra and left a lovely crease in the paint. It was my first car I bought with my own cash, was only three months old, and thanks to some hick I had body damage. If the door had gone through the window or I’d swerved toward incoming traffic to avoid it…God was watching out for me that day.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    ? Is it no longer the right thing to do , stopping to help a stranded Motorist ? .
    .
    I change tires for Women and kids who look obviously over their heads , etc. on a regular basis .
    .
    Yesterday I stopped to help a fat lady push her stalled car out of traffic on a busy road , by the time I began to push , another Woman and a Man came running up so we had no difficulty pushing the dead sedan up a driveway out of traffic .
    .
    The flying debris thing is scary ~ twenty years ago on a lark I took a different route to my job and was S/B on the SR 170 North Hollywood Freeway when the Honda in front of me , lost it’s hood @ 75 MPH ~ it flew up in the air then jinked left , right , left again , right again , I was driving a 1960 VW #117 Beetle in dense traffic , couldn’t stop fast for fear of getting rear ended , cars on both sides of me as I frantically swerved trying to avoid it , in the end it came through my windshield edgewise and I thought it was my end .
    .
    Luckily it was slightly wider that the A Pillars so it jammed between them , the edge about 2″ from my neck .
    .
    I pulled over , the Honda had begun to pull over but when the hood entered my windshield he took off , asshole .
    .
    I nearly shit my self but was O.K. in the end .
    .
    The CHP didn’t want to even take a report .
    .
    -Nate

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    When I was 22 I went to visit a friend in the hospital ER who had a terrible car accident and fractured her back. In her room was another patient, an older man in his 50’s if I had to guess. I ended up talking to him because my friend was zonked out.

    He was paralyzed. He told me that he hit a trailer that had broken loose on the freeway on the pickup in front of him.

    That was the most sobering experience of my life. I can no longer follow any amateur towing a boat/trailer/toys without giving them a lot of distance. Or if see poorly tied down cargo.

    I only wish that we would require all new drivers spend a day in the emergency room of a major hospital where the road victims come in. That would beat all of the “The Road Turns Red” training films.

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