Roadway debris and unsecured loads – how dangerous is it?

Car crashing into pole | Photo by Jongho Sho, iStock, Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Roadway debris can be deadly, causing more than 200,000 crashes resulting in about 39,000 injuries and 500-plus deaths over a four-year period across the U.S., according to a 2016 report by AAA, making it all the more important for motorists to secure their loads before getting on the road.

Nearly 37 percent of all deaths in road debris crashes resulted from the driver swerving to avoid hitting an object, and more than 50,000 crashes reported each year were caused by road debris from 2011-2014, according to the study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2016.

The study also showed that more than 1 in 3 crashes involving debris occurred between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is when many are on the road hauling away debris, moving furniture or hauling other items. About two-thirds of debris-related crashes result from items falling from the trailer or vehicle, typically caused by unsecured loads or improper maintenance.

“This new report shows that road debris can be extremely dangerous but all of these crashes are preventable, and 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,” Jurek Grabowski, research director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in the report.

Additionally, crashes caused by debris are more likely to occur on highways or interstates, where speeds are greater – and so is the danger.

Road debris and crashes infograph | Image courtesy of AAA Research Foundation, St. George News

Debris-related crashes are most commonly caused by:

  • Parts detaching from a vehicle, including tires, wheels and other objects falling onto the roadway.
  • Unsecured cargo like furniture and appliances falling onto the roadway.
  • Tow trailers becoming separated and hitting another vehicle or landing on the roadway.

In St. George, an incident in January near Exit 4 on Interstate 15 brought Utah Highway Patrol troopers to a five-vehicle lineup after concrete fell from a truck and struck the vehicles, damaging two so significantly that they had to be towed.

Read more: Fallen debris on I-15 disables five cars near Brigham Road exit

Under Utah law, a vehicle may not operate on any highway unless it is constructed or loaded in a way that prevents its contents from dropping, sifting, leaking or otherwise escaping, and any vehicle hauling trash must have a covering over the entire load.

If carrying dirt, sand, gravel, rocks, pebbles or similar material, as well as scrap metal, it must have a covering over the entire load, unless:

  • The highest point of the load does not extend above the top of any exterior wall or sideboard of the cargo compartment.
  • The outer edges of the load are at least six inches below the top inside edges of the exterior walls or sideboards of the cargo compartment.

“Unsecured loads are dangerous, not just for drivers but for Utah Highway Patrol Officers who must remove items that have fallen off vehicles. Officers and drivers have been killed from debris on roads and freeways, left by negligent vehicle operators,” the Utah Department of Transportation said.

UDOT estimates more than 1,000 crashes are caused by road debris every year, and the costs associated with removing it from the state’s roadways are staggering, costing Utahns more than $1.8 million a year, according to 2013 data, the most recent available.

It can also be expensive for the driver who is cited for improperly securing the load.

According to the Utah Transportation Code, drivers can be fined no less than $200 for not securing a load properly, if it is their first offense. If they have another within a three-year period, the fine more than doubles to $500.

For commercial vehicles, the fines are even higher – $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for the second offense.

AAA’s load-securing tips

  • Tie down load with rope, netting or straps.
  • Tie large objects directly to the vehicle or trailer.
  • Cover the entire load with a sturdy tarp or netting.
  • Don’t overload the vehicle.
  • Always double check load to make sure a load is secure.

Vehicle maintenance

Badly worn or under-inflated tires can blow out on the road, scattering pieces of tire along the roadway, not to mention the loss of control a driver can experience, particularly if it is a front tire that’s affected.

Exhaust systems and attachments can rust or corrode, which can cause the muffler or other parts to drag and eventually break loose, and both issues can be spotted during regular maintenance.


When a truck or trailer is overloaded or overweight, the performance may suffer, which can be dangerous when it is traveling down an incline, as it picks up speed much faster and requires additional braking force for stop the vehicle, which can lead to items falling out of a trailer.

Further, the load is more likely to shift, resulting in a change in the way the load weight is distributed, which can overload an axle, causing the truck to become off-balanced, which makes it more likely to result in a multivehicle or rollover crash.

Driver safety in the face of flying debris

Drivers can prevent road debris crashes by taking simple precautions to prevent items from falling off their vehicles, but for the drivers following behind, or ones who find themselves near a truck or trailer that is losing its load, using safe driving principles that rely on learning, adaptation and awareness can reduce the risk of injury or damage.

AAA’s tips for avoiding debris

  • Continually search the road ahead at least 12-15 seconds for debris or objects.
  • Leave at least 3-4 seconds of following distance between vehicles, which allows the driver to see potential hazards on the road easier.
  • If contact with road debris is inevitable, slow down as much as is safely possible prior to making contact with the object.
  • When driving at dusk and dawn, be especially alert for animals on or near the roadway.
  • Leaving an open space on at least one side of the vehicle at all times will provide space to cross over into to avoid hitting an object.

“Always try to maintain open space on at least one side of your vehicle in case you need to steer around an object. If you see you are unable to avoid debris on the roadway, safely reduce your speed as much as possible before making contact,” William Van Tassel, manager of driver training programs for AAA, said in a statement.

Keeping Utah’s roadways clean – the numbers

To keep the state’s roads clear of debris, UDOT trucks travel more than 150,000 miles hauling 8,000 truck loads filled with more than 100,000 bags of trash and debris to a to a landfill, along with more than 30,000 “trucker bombs,” bottles filled with urine or feces, that are removed by prison work crews, Adopt-a-Highway volunteers and UDOT employees, according to an analysis conducted by GreenEcoServices.

The amount removed is then replaced by more litter within six weeks.

“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,” Jurek Grabowski, research director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in the statement.

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • utahdiablo February 10, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    BS….nothing is covered on any of the endless dirt haulers going everywhere here in southern Utah….UHP better get with it and start pulling these aholes over….but noooo, this won;t happen, so just a wasted story on St George news as nothing is going to change

  • comments February 10, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    “along with more than 30,000 “trucker bombs,” bottles filled with urine or feces”

    I’ve seen the urine ones, but really, how would you get feces into something like a soda bottle? lol

    • comments February 11, 2018 at 5:36 pm

      maybe shop around for the “wide mouth” soda bottles? Might make it easier. I can imagine the ‘how’, but… the ‘why’ is another story, lol

  • Striker4 February 11, 2018 at 6:37 am

    It’s never a problem untill somebody dies in an auto accident because of it

    • comments February 11, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      yes dump, captain of the obvious, and people do die bc of it.

  • vintagehippie February 11, 2018 at 10:01 am

    One time I called the UHP to inquire if truckers are cited for littering when they leave the tire carcass on the highway following a blow out. These pieces are often big enough to disable an automobile or kill a motorcyclist. The desk officer hung up the phone on me. I guess it’s too much trouble for the UHP to police truckers and the highways.

    • comments February 11, 2018 at 5:37 pm

      you should’ve included something about “free donuts” in the dialogue.

  • comments February 11, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    but yes, road debris can be deadly, another reason not to drive 90+mph on I-15.

  • Redbud February 12, 2018 at 7:40 am

    I rarely see people getting in trouble for unsecured loads by law enforcement, so while the laws are great, people have, and will continue, to violate those laws and put people at risk.

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