Road debris means a commute paved with peril

The girl who met cruel chance on the freeway cradles an Elmo doll under a Tinker Bell blanket, her sagging left eye staring listlessly at a smiling photo of herself tacked to the wall, looking back to a future that no longer exists.

Emily Sumaya is 6 years old and should be in first grade. Instead she is a newborn again, brain-damaged and in a hospital bed off the kitchen of her family’s Banning apartment.

More surgeries await, and nurses tend to her 16 hours a day. A note on the wall cautions newcomers: Left side of head NO BONE. Move carefully.

“A truck hit her in the eye,” said Emily’s 4-year-old brother, Alex.

If Emily were able to get up and look out the window above her, she could see the windy stretch of the 10 Freeway in Riverside County where it happened one evening last March. She was secured in a car seat in the back of her aunt and uncle’s Subaru. They had spent the day at a water park and were headed home to watch a movie and eat ice cream.


Emily’s uncle would recall a spark coming from the rear wheels of the semi-trailer in front of him. Then an explosion and a blizzard of glass.

When her parents got to the scene, Emily’s skull was shattered, her face covered in blood.

Something had hit her. But what? There was nothing obvious on the floor.

A silver ball caught the attention of Emily’s mother, Eh Sumaya. Something embedded in the cushion next to Emily’s car seat.

A 7-pound coupling from a trailer hitch, owner unknown.

Section 23114 of California’s vehicle code stipulates what items can be legally dropped, leaked, spilled or blown onto the freeway: water and feathers from live birds.

There’s no mention of washing machines. Or Stairmasters, trampolines, couches and mattresses. Or televisions, backyard grills, dinette sets and entertainment centers.

The freeway’s flotsam and jetsam is boundless. If it exists, it can find its way onto the fast lane, forcing tactical driving from the untrained and causing accidents and SigAlerts.

A truckload of avocados, 3,300 gallons of hot tar and 40,000 pounds of cantaloupe. Twenty tons of plywood, $7,000 in quarters and a suitcase of documents from the 1850s. An empty coffin and a body out the back of a coroner’s van. Countless bumpers, mufflers and tires shed by vehicles molting like elephant seals.

In the hazardous hall of mirrors that is the freeway, an aquarium falling off the back of a pickup constitutes a fourth dimension of risk — a variable that isn’t supposed to be there. What part of defensive driving covers an airborne ladder coming at you at 65 mph?

“You name it and we’ve picked it up,” said Ed Toledo, a maintenance manager for Caltrans who is responsible for a huge swath of Los Angeles County. “So much different stuff you could easily furnish a household.”

The state spent nearly $50 million last year removing junk and trash from California’s highways, shoulders and medians. In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, some 50,000 cubic yards of debris was hauled away — enough to fill the L.A. Coliseum 28 feet deep, Caltrans says.

The freeway’s castoffs ebb and flow with the moon. The end of the month is for unsecured furniture moving between apartments. California Highway Patrol officers joke that it isn’t Christmas until the tree calls pour in. New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July see a spike in collisions with animals spooked by fireworks.

“We picked up a bear once,” Toledo said. “The thought was he might’ve had a heart attack in the center median.”

When an object is reported to be in lanes, it’s the CHP’s job to stop traffic and remove it. In 90 minutes chosen at random on a recent weekday, there were 20 such calls in L.A. County alone. A washing machine on the 91 Freeway. A pair of ladders on the 10 in West Los Angeles. Lumber on the 5 downtown.

On patrol one day, Officer Leland Tang drives past a hunk of truck tire in the slow lane of the 170 Freeway. Tang once ran over one of these in his personal minivan, and the surprisingly heavy steel-belted rubber chewed up its undercarriage to the tune of $5,000.

He turns on his flashers, exits the freeway, swings back to the previous exit and accelerates back on.

With the tire in sight, Tang stops traffic by zigzagging from one side of the roadway to the other, then turns to face the wall of idling vehicles, bullfighter-style. He grabs the rubber as if it were a boa constrictor and flings it off the road.

“You run into drivers who have one hand on the steering wheel and the other is holding onto a mattress on the roof,” Tang said later. “How can someone think they can restrain a mattress with one hand while driving at freeway speeds?”

Tang stops a truck pulling off the 101 Freeway. Its bulging, bouncing load of carpet, buckets and wood is topped with sheets of plywood — the graham crackers in this s’more made of junk. One strap is holding the entire mess down.

“Think about the physics!” he tells the driver.

Every day our collective ignorance of aerodynamics and Newton’s laws of motion is on full display. The lumbering truck with a tower of stuff held in place by fraying twine is an emblem of Southern California’s freeway-dependent culture — as old as the Joads and as ridiculous as the Clampetts.

It can also be deadly.

Huge concrete pipes fall off a flatbed truck and kill six (1999). A driver slams into a black couch at night, then collides with another vehicle, killing its driver (2010). A motorcyclist hits a barbecue grill and survives — only to be killed by a passing car (2010). A tire comes off a truck’s axle and lands on the roof of a CHP cruiser, crushing an officer to death (1996). A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy is killed by a cement truck swerving to avoid a stolen stove that has fallen off a pickup (2006).

The last incident resulted in a murder conviction for the appliance thief after prosecutors convinced a jury that the accident occurred during the commission of a felony.

But more often than not, when an object leads to an accident, its owner is long gone — either unaware, or all too aware, of what has happened.

Orange County attorney Brian Chase secured a $1-million wrongful death settlement in 2006 for the family of a woman mortally injured by an unsecured plywood sign that took flight from a truck and smashed through her windshield.

Such settlements are rare, Chase says.

“If you got a sign coming off a truck, it’s easy to track down,” he said. “But your average person who’s going to the dump or to a swap meet and something blows off … knowing where the debris comes from is nearly impossible.”

Equally elusive is an accurate statistical picture of the danger posed by road debris. What little data exist suggest it accounts for a tiny fraction of accidents: 1,723 collisions and 15 fatalities reported to the CHP in 2009.

Still, the specter of encountering an identifiable flying object on the road weighs on people’s minds; a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 91% of respondents considered highway debris a somewhat serious or very serious safety problem.

“You don’t have to hit some junk and file a report and make it something in a database to be afraid if you’re swerving around junk all the time,” said David Ropeik, a consultant on risk communication who teaches at Harvard University. “It’s part of the psychology of risk perception. Risks that are done to us by others, risks that are imposed on us, scare us more than risks we choose to take.”

The absurdity of randomly confronting, say, a leather recliner during rush hour is the existentialist’s commute.

The fear and anxiety stem from the awareness that the recliner is out there somewhere. And chance dictates that somebody, eventually, is going to hit the damn thing.

Emily Sumaya cannot talk, but she now breathes on her own and will occasionally let out a giggle and smile. Her right eye responds with recognition to the voices of her three brothers. The squeal of SpongeBob on television has the same effect.

“She might walk and talk someday,” her mother, Eh, said. “The doctors didn’t think she’d make it this far. All we can do is wait and see what she shows us. She’s a survivor.”

Eric Sumaya cries when he drives the stretch of freeway where it happened. Because it’s a few hundred yards from the apartment, near the offramp, he travels it nearly every day. The Sumayas would like to move but can’t afford to.

They are prisoners of chance searching in vain for the answer to a question: Why Emily?

“Whoever owns the tow hitch,” Eh Sumaya said, “I wonder if he realizes how much damage he has caused my daughter and our family?”