Roadway Debris & Defects
Vehicle related road debris has been linked to over 25,000 crashes per year, including as many as 90 fatalities. -- AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
What is road debris? – “Pieces of concrete, nails, pieces of pipe, rebar, wood, sofas, chairs - all kinds of stuff…” - Sergeant Dwayne Cooper of the Florida Highway Patrol
“At highway speeds, even small debris can be deadly. Items such as hand tools, spare tires, tarps, and tie-down straps can pose a serious danger if they land on a congested highway.” - AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
We’ve all faced this type of situation – unexpected obstacles in the middle of the travel lane that cause us to consider whether we need to swerve to avoid it or see if our vehicle will successfully pass over it. Debris can range from shredded tires to step ladders to bags of trash.
Roadway defects represent another group of hazards to driving: poorly maintain roads (potholes, delaminated concrete or asphalt; steep drop-offs at shoulders, etc.); missing signs; inadequate road lighting/illumination (broken lighting systems); guardrails in disrepair; overgrown trees or vegetation blocking signs or line of sight; pooling water from blocked drains that can lead to hydroplaning.
These obstacles and situations can contribute to collisions at any time or any place.
One of the most common problems is roadway debris. Debris shows up for many reasons – mostly unsecured or improperly secured loads that have fallen off of trucks or out of pickups, etc. Sometimes debris is dropped or thrown onto the highway by teens as a dangerous prank. Other times the debris is left from a previous crash and it has not been properly cleaned or removed.
Sadly, crashes related to obstacles in the travel lane are often serious since the driver often swerves to avoid the object and either rolls-over their vehicle or heads into oncoming traffic. In fact, one of the most publicized debris-related crashes occurred when film director Alan J. Pakula (“All The President’s Men”, “Sophie’s Choice”, et.al.) was killed on the Long Island Expressway by a pipe that had dropped from a truck and been propelled through his windshield.
Hitting and running over debris that is in the middle of the driving lane, or swerving to avoid “foreign objects” can seriously damage your vehicle, even if there is no resulting collision with another vehicle.
Although most highways are monitored for debris on a daily basis, state troopers and highway maintenance crews can’t be everywhere all the time.
Additionally, improperly secured loads that fall in front of your vehicle can cause an immediate danger in at any time.
If a roadway isn’t properly maintained, you may have trouble seeing where you’re going or miss important, but hidden, signs. Additionally swerving to avoid potholes is as dangerous as swerving to avoid debris in your travel lane. The accumulation of water, snow or ice due to blocked drains can contribute to surprising hydroplaning events.
Authorities who are responsible for keeping roadways maintained try their best, but may be overwhelmed due to the sheer miles of roads to be inspected and repaired on a continual basis, and due to recent cutbacks in spending at the local and state levels. Similarly, on side streets and in neighborhoods, residents may not realize that their shrubs or trees could be a hazard to larger commercial vehicles.
Back To Basics – Watch the Road!
Although it may sound simple, the best defense is to keep scanning the road in front of you for debris or other problems. Debris can appear at any time, anywhere. People have spotted some really outrageous items in the highway, but anything in your way could damage your tires and lead to a loss of control.
Some of the most common debris items encountered are treads stripped from commercial truck tires, but many of the items associated with motor vehicles or hauling uncovered loads (tires, wood products, and organic material, such as yard debris, stumps, firewood, and pruned branches). Debris also occurs in the form of vehicle parts that fall or tear off.
All vehicles are subject to having parts or equipment break loose. Such debris may be deposited on the road and run over or may bounce off the pavement and strike another vehicle. Blown tires, tire treads, drive shafts, bumpers, hoods, leaf springs, and brake parts have all contributed to serious crashes.
Items improperly tied onto passenger vehicles, such as mattresses or furniture, also pose a threat to drivers since they can blow off of the roof and land anywhere.
You should also pay attention to vehicles that are carrying loads that could fall onto the road – give them extra space or pass them if it is safe to do so. Loads of pipes, lumber, or scrap metal are just a few of the loads that can prove difficult to secure against shifting or flying out of the truck.
Plan an Escape Route
Plan ahead as you drive – think about where you could move your vehicle in an instant if you really had to swerve to avoid an object in the roadway.
Be extra careful to pay attention to any “blind areas” around your vehicle where another car or truck may be “lurking”. If you swerve to avoid hitting some obstacle in the lane and end up hitting a vehicle in your blind area, you’re still “in trouble”!
Additionally, other vehicles may swerve into your lane because of an obstacle in their own lane – usually, you can spot this by watching traffic ahead of your vehicle for odd, repeated swerving at the same point in the road.
Secure Your Own Load Properly, Too!
Whether you drive a dump truck or a pick-up truck, make sure the bed is covered and secured. It can be difficult to ensure that a load stays put, but every reasonable effort must be made to secure loads effectively. We've all seen tarps flapping in the wind with debris blowing out from underneath them. It only takes a small piece of metal, wood or concrete to create a dangerous situation for other motorists.
Even if your vehicle is not likely to have a loose load, items left on the roof top as you enter the cab, or items left on bumpers can fall off and contribute to this growing traffic safety issue.
Notify the Authorities
If you encounter roadway defects from poor maintenance, uprooted, vandalized or missing signs, report them to the local or state police as a hazard so that they can coordinate with the appropriate teams to address the situation. If you’re diligent in watching the road ahead, you should be able to slow down to better cope with the situation.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has recommended several measures:
Training enforcement officials in vehicle safety and load securement
Training commercial vehicle drivers to periodically inspect their vehicles and cargo
Educating motorists on load securement and reporting unsafe vehicles, unsecured loads, and road debris
Enacting stricter laws on load securement
Targeting specific groups for enforcement (e.g., waste haulers, landscapers)
Educating the public on defensive driving, especially around trucks
Additionally, it’s the responsibility of various local and state repair crews to monitor and repair roads, signs, lights and signals to reduce the potential for collisions. If you see a problem, report it!
Take care while driving – road debris can become an issue with no notice and it can have terrible consequences. Also make sure to do your part in preventing collisions by securing your load and by notifying the authorities when you spot potential trouble on the highway.