Unsightly road debris is dangerous
Normal commutes in Summit County turn dangerous when drivers must avoid metal ladders, shredded tires, falling rocks and road kill.
In May, the trailer the Summit County Sheriff’s Office uses to show motorists their speeds was pushed into Hoytsville Road by someone in North Summit on the same day a group of kids threw furniture on the highway.
"We’re in transition here because the amount of traffic that we’re seeing coming through our county is just so much more than is has ever been," Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said. "The more traffic, the more road debris, the more road debris, the more potential accidents you’re going to have."
Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeff Nigbur said he once saw a hot tub in the middle of a six-lane freeway, which was a departure from the mattresses and couches officers often remove from streets.
"Around Christmas we get a lot of Christmas trees," Nigbur said.
While not unique to Utah, trucks piled with unsecured loads annually cost state taxpayers nearly $2 million to clean up, according to the Utah Department of Transportation.
And lives are lost when road debris wreaks havoc on busy commutes, Nigbur lamented.
"When they see debris, they typically will swerve and they swerve into other cars that are next to them, or they swerve and lose control and roll their vehicle," he explained. "Combine that with not wearing seat belts and it creates a lot of mess."
When road shoulders resemble garage sales it’s time to crack down, according to Edmunds.
"Whether it’s tent poles or a chair that somebody was moving from apartment to apartment, a lot of our highways, they start to look like junk yards," he said.
Edmunds agrees with litter anthropologists who claim the nature of trash on the road is changing.
"The litter campaigns that have been conducted over the years have really done a good job educating people that you can’t throw your McDonald’s bag out the window or throw your can of Coke out the window. We’ve seen a decline in a lot of that," the sheriff acknowledged. "What we’re seeing now is people failing to secure loads."
So-called deliberate litter like soda cans once reigned where more unintentional types of litter from unsecured loads is becoming more prominent, Edmunds said, adding that, especially construction contractors must "go the extra mile" to strap cargo.
"It’s dangerous debris when you’re talking about rebar and 2x4s," he said. "When you hit it doing 75 mph, this stuff can come up and become a very dangerous projectile."
When debris blows off vehicles drivers can be fined, he said. Failing to secure a load is a class B misdemeanor for which motorists in Summit County usually pay a $40 fine.
Transportation officials in Utah picked up about 45,000 cubic-yards of debris in 2006, which is enough to cover a football field. Each year they haul away about 3,000 truckloads of debris that weigh roughly one ton each, which requires about 100,000 plastic bags, according to UDOT statistics.
Of the 16,287 crashes reported to the Utah Highway Patrol in 2005, 119 were caused by road debris. In 2004, debris caused 127 crashes and one fatality.
But catching drivers who do not stop for their lost items is difficult, Edmunds said.
"We are quick to pull them over because the amount of stuff that is on the side of the road is just staggering," he said. "It’s very dangerous."
However, Nigbur cautioned motorists not to run into traffic to clean up their mess.
"When somebody does lose something out of their vehicle, they typically pull over and then back up to the debris. We get a lot of people who actually run out into five or six lanes of traffic to get their debris," Nigbur said. "In six lanes of traffic, I will not run out."
Clearing the roads of debris is "one of the more frightening things we do," Edmunds concurred.
"You might only have two seconds to run out there and get it and come back," he said. "A good percentage of the police officers who are killed in the line of duty every year — they are run over."
Avoid swerving to miss road debris, said Nigbur, who advises those driving loaded trucks to avoid highways by taking sidestreets.
"It’s a natural reaction, say a cardboard box falls out of a truck and goes into the middle of the road, probably 90 percent of the time people will swerve to miss a cardboard box," he said. "Our recommendation is, if it’s something you can hit, hit it. You’re going to get damage to the car more than likely but it’s better than losing your life."
Summit County and Park City’s elected leaders celebrated Earth Day by attending the signing of the Community Renewable Energy Act.