(ABC4) – Nicci Sanders was driving northbound on I-15 near Clearfield to meet a client when she noticed cars starting to brake and move out of the way in the lanes to the right of her.
“Another split second, I look up and there’s a four foot metal beam flying through the air,” she tells ABC4.com. “It sounded like a bomb had gone off in my car, and I really I thought I was dead at first because when I closed my eyes, it was coming straight at my head, so I thought for sure I was dead.”
Sanders would find out later that the metal beam, which went through her windshield, splintering it into shards and fine dust, had fallen off of a roofing truck.
And though she walked away from the accident physically uninjured, Sanders says she experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and survivor’s guilt when she realized how many others in similar situations aren’t as lucky.
“The cop came and he’s just like, ‘you are so lucky to be alive. Oh my god; I see this all the time. You’re so lucky to be alive,'” Sanders says.
Litter and debris on Utah’s highways and interstates have caused death and injury and occur when drivers fail to secure loads properly. And it’s a growing problem.
Alex Whitney, Trooper for Utah Highway Patrol, works on a crew that plucks all types of litter and debris from Utah’s roadways. He has seen king-sized mattresses, dryers, washing machines, and even deep freezers end up on Utah’s roads after falling off vehicles.
They are “really, really big, hazardous, heavy things out in the roadway that could certainly cause major injuries and definitely death to somebody driving down the roadway,” he tells ABC4.com. “It’s definitely something we’re seeing more of.”
Since the beginning of July alone, Whitney and his crew have responded to 50 calls of debris or other hazards in the roadway. And that’s not even taking into account Salt Lake City’s other crews and shifts, he says.
According to the Utah Department of Transportation, unsecured loads cause 1,800 crashes each year. Last month, debris-related crashes killed four people in Utah. Ten people died from these crashes in 2020.
John Gleason, Public Information Officer for UDOT, tweeted about the problem in late June.
Furthermore, the time spent clearing the litter has increased 28% within the past five years, increasing cleanup costs to about $2.5 million each year, UDOT says.
Requirements and penalties under Utah law
Utah law defines an unsecured load as “the contents of a vehicle, operated on a highway, not sufficiently covered, confined, fastened, or otherwise secured in a way to prevent the contents from escaping the vehicle.”
It includes material such as “dirt, sand, gravel, rock fragments, pebbles, crushed base, aggregate, any other similar material, or scrap metal or other loose material on any portion of the vehicle not designed to carry the material.”
The law states that drivers cannot operate “a vehicle with an unsecured load on any highway or operate a vehicle carrying trash or garbage without a covering over the entire load.”
A vehicle carrying dirt, sand or gravel, or any of the other materials listed above, have to be covered 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 of the vehicle; and 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 of the vehicle,” Whitney explains, quoting Utah law.
And those who violate this law, can face penalties.
Those suspected of operating a vehicle with an unsecured load on a highway may receive a warning. It’s an infraction if the violation creates a hazardous but doesn’t lead to a crash. If the violation leads to a crash, the penalty is a class B misdemeanor, and if the violation creates a hazard that leads to serious bodily injury or death, the penalty is a class A misdemeanor.
A person who violates a provision of the section can be fined $200 and $500 for every subsequent violation within six years of a previous violation.
Sanders says she believes Utah should have stricter laws when it comes to unsecured loads. The driver of the vehicle that caused the accident that could’ve claimed her life received just a ticket, she says.
“The driver was cited, but I mean, it’s a ticket he had to go to court for… I think that they should be pulled over and I think it should be a huge fine too,” she states.
“The statistics were just so alarming of how many people on Utah roads died from this or were seriously injured,” Sanders adds.
How the Utah Highway Patrol deals with debris
Though Whitney says it can sometimes take a while to find safe ways for crews to get to and clean up debris, but it’s a type of call that UHP gives priority to.
“And we try to get to it as fast as we can and get that removed from the roadway before it does cause a crash and potentially injure or kill somebody,” he says. “Aside from taking a while to get to it, sometimes it takes a little bit for us to come up with a plan to get that out on the roadway, depending on how big or how much of it is in the roadway.”
For example, Whitney has seen a wide variety of items on the road from two by fours to gravel spread across all lanes of traffic. Some cases are more difficult to clean up and require different personnel to deal with it, he says.
If officials are clearing hazards on the roadway, they may try to slow down traffic. Whitney says it’s important for people to be patient.
“If you see an emergency vehicle weaving across all lanes of traffic to try and create a break in traffic, please please, please yield to that emergency vehicle and do not pass them. It is very likely that there are personnel in the roadway ahead of me,” he explains. “And we certainly don’t want emergency personnel getting hit in the roadway while we’re trying to remove that debris, so please yield to that emergency vehicle creating that break and just be patient with us.”
Debris can cause a lot of danger on the road – “anything from just a property damage crash to your vehicle or multiple vehicles, all the way up to death in regards to crashes on the road that start with a ladder or something out the road,” he says.
Secure your load
According to Whitney, motor vehicle crashes caused by debris in the roadway are completely preventable.
“It’s such a shame to have to respond to these calls where people are receiving major injury and even worse, where people are dying from something like this,” he says.
Whitney and the Utah Department of Public Safety, offer the following tips to drivers to ensure that loads are properly secured.
- Use rope, netting, or straps to tie the load down
- Tie large objects directly to the vehicle or trailer
- Cover loads of dirt, gravel, or sand with a sturdy tarp or net and make sure it can’t spill out of any cracks
- Secure the tarp with bungee cords, a net, or straps- even a tarp coming loose can block a driver’s vision and cause a crash
- Keep plenty of following space between you and the vehicle in front of you in case something falls off the vehicle
- Make sure your bungee cords and straps are not weathered or worn
- Always double check your load
- Maintain your vehicle to avoid tire blowouts or losing car parts on the road
Sanders says it is so easy to make sure that accidents don’t happen from unsecured loads.
“The canyon winds take these things out of the back of trucks all the time, and I see it all the time now. I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, look at that. There’s not one strap on any of that stuff. It’s pretty horrific; it’s sad,” she says.