This is not a story for the faint of heart--or the weak of bladder.
It's about those times when you really, really, really have to go and you're driving across South Dakota and the next rest stop is 95 miles away. One option, of course, is to pull over and relieve yourself behind a tree. Another is to find an empty container in your car--perhaps that super-sized soda you so regret swigging--and urinate in that.
Far too many people these days apparently are choosing the latter.
And then they dump their makeshift port-a-potties out the window to fester until some hapless maintenance worker drives by on a lawn mower and pops the bottle, spewing human waste everywhere--including on himself.
"It's a very undesirable problem," said Jerry Horner, a North Dakota road maintenance engineer.
Or, as Iowa maintenance chief Will Zitterich put it: "It's disgusting."
It's also alarmingly widespread.
The California Highway Patrol insists that urine dumping isn't a problem in the Golden State, perhaps because restrooms beckon from fast-food joints at nearly every freeway exit. But several other states fess up to struggling with the indelicate issue of how to potty-train motorists.
"For some reason, they just don't want to stop [at a restroom]," sighed Paul Cammack, a Nebraska road engineer. "It's really discouraging."
$250 Fine in Oregon
Although enforcement is admittedly difficult, Oregon recently passed a law making it a misdemeanor to toss human waste on the highway. The fine is $250.
North Dakota transportation officials proposed a similar bill earlier this year, but lawmakers rejected it as unfriendly to motorists who are kind enough to visit their state.
"We want to promote tourism, and this might be offensive," one legislator explained. Undaunted, transportation officials plan to push the proposal again this year, noting that they've already spent $15,000 outfitting maintenance tractors with cabs to shield crews from splattering urine.
Although no state keeps exact statistics, North Dakota officials estimated that their road crews get splashed 20 to 40 times a year. Iowa has come up with an even more stomach-churning number: Officials found 147 bottles of urine along a 16-mile stretch of interstate a few years back. "Since then, we have found other places with the same type of problem," Zitterich said.
To be honest, the urine bombs don't pose much of a health hazard, even to road crews. "There's almost no disease known to man that could be spread by that," said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, Iowa's state epidemiologist.
But the practice of trying to take rest stops on the run can itself be hazardous. Witness the truck driver found dead in a wreck in Utah several years ago, with his pants around his knees and a "pee jug" on the floor beside him.
And officials generally blame truckers for most of the roadside waste-dumping.
Many of the urine bottles are found near the rest stops and exit ramps that truckers use as makeshift campgrounds. The drivers may grab a few hours' sleep in their cabs, then chuck the day's accumulated waste out the window "instead of walking a few hundred feet to the trash can"--or, for that matter, to the restroom, Cammack said.
Some Blame Truckers
Truck drivers resent the slander.
"There never was, there is not and there never will be any sort of trucking policy that endorses this alleged practice, and we in no way encourage it," said Mike Russell of American Trucking Assns.
Whoever's responsible for the on-the-go pit stops, transportation officials insist it's not a question of too few bathrooms. And several motorists using the rest area near this small town on the Minnesota border agreed.
Driving with five sons from Milwaukee to the Black Hills, for instance, Sue and Rich Gurgel said they never had to resort to scrambling for an empty container in their van.
"We have a baby, and even he's been fine," Sue Gurgel said.
"Of course, he has a diaper," her husband pointed out, "so he carries his restroom along with him."