Debris on Ohio’s highways — overwhelmingly the result of unsecured loads — results in an average 20 highway fatalities a year and five times as many serious injuries, according to state accident reports.
The cost to taxpayers: millions.
“It is an ugly problem, but it can also be a dangerous problem,” said Matt Bruning, Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) spokesman.
Between 2012 and 2016, more than 18,700 crashes on state roadways were set in motion by debris, according to state accident data. The result: 102 people dead and another 569 were seriously injured.
Although the numbers represent a relatively minor fraction of the state’s crashes — about 1 percent — they are among the easiest to prevent by taking simple precautions, Bruning said.
“When you’re hauling a load of scrap, or a load of trash, or even picking up new furniture at the store or a mattress, you really need to tie that down and put a tarp over it,” he said. “That’s what we’re really trying to get people to understand.”
Other motorists also need to take caution. Sgt. John Chesser of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Xenia Post said a toy truck once flew out of the bed of a pickup just ahead of him on Interstate 75. Chesser said he avoided a collision — or worse — because he’d given himself enough room.
“You need to give yourself a reactionary gap so you can protect yourself,” he said.
Over the past five years, Butler and Montgomery counties each recorded four fatalities due to road debris and Clark County reported 3.
Last year, 19 people across the state lost their lives after encountering debris.
“Those are 19 people that would be here today if it weren’t for someone carelessly hauling a piece of debris that flew out and caused a crash,” Bruning said.
Driving with an unsecured load on a state highway — which includes many routes through towns and cities — is illegal in Ohio.
With the exception of some farm vehicles transporting produce or agricultural production materials, as well as rubbish vehicles in the loading process, no vehicle is allowed on a highway without “a sufficient cover to prevent the load or any part of the load from spilling onto the highway.”
Every state has penalties for unsecure loads. Most call for fines ranging from $10 to $5,000, with the possibility in 16 states of serving time in jail, according to the United States Government Accountability Office. The penalty in Ohio, however, is not among the nation’s stiffest: a minor misdemeanor that includes a fine, but no jail time.
Fines for an unsecured load typically vary from $120-160 depending on the jurisdiction, Chesser said.
More than a third of the deaths in road debris crashes result from a driver swerving to avoid hitting an object, according to an American Automobile Association (AAA) national study of fatalities between 2011 and 2014. The analysis showed about two-thirds of debris-related crashes resulted from items falling from a vehicle due to improper maintenance and unsecured loads.
Much of the debris — whether parts fallen off unmaintained vehicles, construction refuse or plain litter — eventually gets shoved to the side of the road, where it poses another problem for ODOT, Bruning said.
The department spends about $4 million a year picking up the roadside trash, and the sum is despite the use of inmate labor and Adopt-A-Highway volunteers, he said. Last year ODOT collected more than 440,000 bags of litter, or about 10 bags for every lane mile.
“We really just need people to pay attention when they are hauling things and make sure things are secure,” Bruning said. “The law aside, it’s the right thing to do.”
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