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Falling, Flying Debris Can Turn the Road Into a Dangerous Obstacle Course

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While driving the freeways in Southern California, you are apt to see the most amazing road debris.

Unfortunately, there’s so much of it that you also are apt to be hit by it, or to run into it.

Everything from couches and refrigerators to dog houses and dishwashers have tumbled out of pickup trucks. Ladders and mattresses have flown off car roofs. Delivery trucks have spilled bottles of beer and tipped tankers have spewed thousands of gallons of gasoline.

“You name it, we’ve seen it along the roads. We’ve even found dead bodies,” says California Highway Patrol public affairs officer Scott Ellison.

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All that dangerous debris can cause accidents and create marathon traffic jams.

It’s so worrisome that the CHP has stepped up efforts to spot vehicles carrying unsafe and improperly secured loads. Officers also are looking out for trucks and cars that are driven recklessly, particularly vehicles that pose a danger when they cut in front of big rigs on the freeways.

Under California Vehicle Code 24002, “it is unlawful to operate any vehicle or combination of vehicles which is in an unsafe condition, or which is not safely loaded, and which presents an immediate safety hazard.”

If the wind catches a loose ladder in a pickup truck and it sails through your windshield, or a tire spins off a car and careens into another vehicle, the results can be devastating, says CHP spokeswoman Colleen Richardson.

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Last month, CHP motorcycle officer Steve Licon was heading home at night in Riverside County when he hit a large metal locker lying in the middle of the dimly lighted road. He suffered three broken vertebrae and minor internal injuries, said Richardson. It’s unknown when he will be able to return to duty.

Drivers who fail to properly secure items on their vehicles can be cited, and if their failure to secure a load safely results in a fatal accident, they could face involuntary manslaughter charges, says Sgt. Steve Doan of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

And “innocent” passers-by aren’t always that innocent under the law. The driver who slams into road debris during daylight hours could be at fault if the item was stationary and could have been avoided, says Richardson.

When drivers are transporting items--whether it’s heavy furniture or Christmas trees--they need to make sure the load is secured, says Sgt. Dusty Morrison of the CHP’s commercial vehicle unit.

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A frequent problem, he says, is people who load their vehicles with sheets of plywood or other wind-catching items and don’t tie them down properly. Or worse, Morrison says, they load their purchases into the bed of a pickup without securing them at all, thinking they are heavy enough they won’t blow out.

Often, they discover the load isn’t as secure as they thought. It comes loose on the freeway and falls out into traffic.

Morrison learned firsthand how hazardous this can be when his patrol car was hit by a flying sheet of plywood on the San Bernardino Freeway.

“I saw this 4-foot-by-8-foot piece of wood in the air. A chunk of it came right through my side window, hit my arm and I got glass in my eyes. My biggest fear was [losing] control of the car,” he recalls.

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Whoever was carrying the plywood kept driving. “Maybe they didn’t even know they lost it.”

The CHP advises motorists to practice defensive driving by keeping an eye on what’s ahead on the road. When driving, it’s best to scan ahead one-third to one-half mile so you can change lanes if you spot something in the roadway, says Paul Gonzales of the Auto Club of Southern California. “It’s better to change lanes than slam on the brakes, because the driver behind you may not see what’s going on and hit you.”

But be careful changing lanes. Serious injury accidents often happen when drivers swerve to avoid hitting an object in the road. They collide with another vehicle or lose control and spin off the freeway.

“Keep a cool head,” says Morrison. If it’s not a large object, it’s better to ride over it than swerve erratically. “It may cause damage to your vehicle, but it is better than causing an accident.”

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.


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