After 11 years with the Virginia Department of Transportation's safety service patrol, Mike Karbonski can only shake his head at some of the things he sees that have dropped off vehicles on Northern Virginia's highways.
One recent afternoon, a garbage truck heading south on Shirley Highway spilled cardboard across the right two lanes, prompting Karbonski to call in a front loader to clean it up before rush hour. A few weeks earlier, a fallen L-shaped angle iron caused flat tires on six vehicles near Telegraph Road and Route 1 (Richmond Highway). The day after that, a mattress fell off a vehicle at the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66, striking a car and bursting into flames.
"The guy ran over the mattress, and it hung underneath," Karbonski said. "The catalytic converter and the muffler caught the mattress on fire."
Karbonski's supervisor, Chris Landis, said such road debris from cars and trucks "causes mayhem. If traffic is heavy, people are usually driving a little closer to each other than they should be, and a car in front of you will suddenly swerve out of the way [to avoid the debris]. Suddenly there is something in front of you, and you have to swerve out of the way. If there is someone on either side of you, it's an accident."
Cargo or vehicle parts that accidentally fall off cars and trucks are an increasing hazard on Northern Virginia's crowded roadways, according to traffic safety officials. Though most such debris is from passenger vehicles, the materials that drop from trucks often are the most visible to motorists. Nearly 16 years after the state began requiring trucks to cover their loads, many still spill gravel, sand, trash and building materials onto area roadways, sometimes with frightening consequences.
Stuart Roy's friends often introduce him as 'the guy who almost got killed by a flying pitchfork.' Last November, Roy was heading east on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in a sport-utility vehicle when a pitchfork from a westbound dump truck hurtled through the SUV's windshield, stopping inches from Roy's chest. The pitchfork now is mounted on wood and displayed on a wall in Roy's Alexandria home, a reminder of his close call.
About 25,000 crashes and 90 deaths a year are caused by vehicle parts or cargo that are unintentionally discharged onto roadways in the United States and Canada, according to a report released in June by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Many of those accidents are preventable, foundation officials said, because they are the result of poorly maintained tires.
"Blown tires, tire treads, drive shafts, bumpers, hoods, leaf springs, and brake parts have all contributed to serious crashes," said the report, which did not have local statistics. "At highway speeds, even small debris can be deadly. Items such as hand tools, spare tires, tarps, and tie-down straps can pose a serious danger if they land on a congested highway."
Safety specialists said they fear the problem is getting worse in the Washington region, especially in growing areas such as Fairfax and Loudoun counties, where intense construction activity is underway to build the homes, schools, shopping centers, roads and other structures needed to serve an expanding population.
The mammoth projects to untangle the Springfield Mixing Bowl and replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge involve hundreds of construction vehicles, some of which do not completely secure their loads.
Cruising along the Beltway one recent evening during rush hour, VDOT road safety patrolman David Bennett pointed out a dump truck to a reporter. A large mound of dirt was visible above the truck's cargo area, and a tarp covering the load was fluttering loosely.
"He doesn't have it covered properly," Bennett said, continuing with this possible scenario: "A big chunk of dirt comes out, somebody is following too close, it hits their windshield, they swerve not knowing what happened and hit somebody else."
Trucks carrying materials such as gravel and dirt must be covered by a secured tarp, according to state law, or face fines ranging from $30 to $500. Leslie L. Byrne, a former Democratic state senator from Fairfax who sponsored the covered trucks measure when she was in office, said for the most part the law has reduced the amount of litter on state roads.
However, she said, "There has been spotty enforcement. The condition of a lot of these tarps is problematic. Some of them have such gaping holes in them that [the drivers] might as well not use them." She added, "The commercial vehicles that carry garbage, construction debris and landscaping debris -- that's the mainstay of the problem."