The New York state trooper arrived on the scene just as things were getting back under control.
“We got a call about debris in the road,” he said, eyeing the mangled metal skeleton that my friend, Harold, and I had just pulled from the center lane of Interstate 287, a few miles outside Rye, N.Y. “I figured it was something like this.”
He was referring to the rack — still carrying two 12-foot-long kayaks and a bike — that had been thrown from the roof of my Honda Civic when I hit a pothole driving back from Cape Cod in September. A good Samaritan, unfazed by what had just played out in front of him, had pulled off the road to help us, holding back traffic while Harold and I ran onto the highway and retrieved our wayward cargo.
Miraculously, no one was injured, or worse. Even the boats and the bike survived the crash intact. The main damage was to the rack’s mounting hardware, which took the brunt of the impact and would need to be replaced.
Motoring with bulky gear — not just bikes and kayaks, but also skis, snowboards, sculls and hang gliders — is no walk in the park. No one keeps tabs on how often these things fall off cars en route to or from someplace fun. But it happens more often than you might think, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
A month before my incident, a woman in Utah had to be airlifted to the hospital after a car hit her as she tried to retrieve one of her kids’ bikes on an interstate near Salt Lake City. The circumstances, as described in news reports, were eerily similar to mine: The bike had fallen off her car when she hit a bump in a construction zone.
Sgt. Marc Black of the Maryland State Police tells me that he has come across plenty of lost items, often in pieces, on and along I-95 and other major highways. And amid the wreckage of accidents that he has investigated, he has found bits of broken bikes that drivers swerved to miss.
William Loewe of Silver Spring, a theology professor and member of my local bike club, concedes that he may have played a role in one such crash a few years ago. He’d just pulled onto the Beltway when he noticed that the rack on the trunk of his car was carrying only one bike, although he and his partner had left the house with two. Someone had forgotten to secure the straps, he said.
Several months later, when a policeman came knocking at his door, he thought that his missing bike might have turned up. But his hopes were dashed when the officer asked for his insurance information, because two cars had been damaged running over a bike with a tag identifying Loewe as the owner.
Harold and I share the blame for our mishap. We wrongly assumed that we were safe as long as we ensured that the straps and clamps attaching the boats and bike to the rack stayed tight. In fact, we made a point of stopping to check them every several hours.
Rookie mistake, according to Karl Wiedemann, a spokesman for Thule, my rack’s manufacturer. We failed to account for the force of lift — that is, the wind passing under the boats as the car traveled at highway speed. He guessed correctly that we’d neglected to read the instructions that came with the kayak cradles and to use the front and back tie-down straps that came in the package. Ouch.
Tethering a bulky object such as a kayak or a canoe to the front and rear of the car also keeps it from torpedoing if you have to hit the brakes hard, Wiedemann said.
Thinking of taking large gear on a road trip? Here are some additional tips for safe travel:
Ride inside. Hands down the safest way to carry a bike is inside your car, according to Black. It’s worth noting that many members of my bike club — folks who regularly drive an hour or more from Washington to ride in the Maryland or Virginia countryside — choose their cars based on capacity. They buy only cars big enough to hold a bike or two inside. When traveling in India, Mark Hemhauser, 47, a University of Maryland librarian who bicycles thousands of miles each year, carried his bike inside his car and put his luggage on the roof. “The bike was more valuable,” he said.
Manual labor. Review the manual that came with your rack before hitting the highway, recommends Greg Billing, outreach and advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “You need to know your equipment,” he said. “There may be some little clip you didn’t know you need to fasten.”
Belt tightening. Make a habit of checking ropes and straps every couple of hours while traveling to make sure that they haven’t loosened. Forget about using bungee cords to fasten your gear; when the cords are stretched tight enough over time, their hooks tend to straighten or snap off. (I see broken bungees along the shoulder almost every time I go out on my bike.) Besides, snapping bungees are a common source of eye injuries. And compensate for lift by strapping heavy, flat objects such as a kayak to the front and back of the car, as well as to your rack.
Lock down. Roof racks are pricey, which means that there’s a black market for them. Protect your investment by locking your rack to your car. (Several manufacturers have special locks for this purpose.) My friend Steve Palinscar learned about the demand for roof racks the hard way: A particularly fearless crook, probably equipped with nothing more than work gloves, removed his rack from his car while the vehicle was parked in front of his house.
And there’s a market for your gear, too. Following the trooper’s advice, Harold and I stowed our boats behind the highway guardrail, out of sight, while we went to get the busted rack fixed. Alas, when we returned four hours later, both boats were gone.
Take it all off. Racks add drag and reduce fuel efficiency by as much as 10 percent, according to some estimates. If you don’t use your rack regularly, take it off.
Heads up. Yes, mounting gear on top of your car makes your car taller. Protect your gear, your car and your ego by keeping that in mind before pulling into your garage.
Zeidner is a freelance writer in Arlington.