Local accidents caused by flying debris on highways: 7 ON YOUR SIDE investigates

We've all had it happen. We're driving along and in an instant, swerve to avoid debris in the road.

That sudden maneuver can cause accidents and consequently, injuries and deaths in astounding numbers every year across the US.

The accidents can be caused by anything from a radio to a refrigerator. In the last four years there have been more than 200,000 crashes nationally, because of road debris.

Often times items come off the back of moving vehicles, with devastating results, with the driver never realizing that something has come loose.

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Hundreds of times a day similar scenarios play out on roads across the US, with no warning and almost no reaction time.

"I just grabbed the steering wheel, punched the brakes as hard as I could and you know, came to a screeching halt there in the middle of the bridge. Literally from 60 to zero," says Stuart Roy.

Roy was heading across the Wilson Bridge, between Washington, D.C. and Virginia when a pitchfork came loose from an oncoming truck and sailed through his windshield at more than 60 miles an hour.

"The only reason it didn't come through and hit me and go through my head is because part of the pitchfork went through the frame of the car and through the frame of the door. That's what hung it up. The rest of the pitchfork came past my hands on the steering wheel, so it was only probably 12 or 16 inches from my face."

Stuart Roy reminds himself daily that he lived to tell this story.

The pitchfork hangs on his office wall.

"It's a very serious situation," says Stanley Newman.

Newman works for the Virginia Department of Transportation and travels about 350 miles a day, on the lookout for dangerous road debris.

"You can take a box and it can cause a five care pile-up right here, just because a box fell off the back of a truck," Newman told us as we drove with him on his route in Northern Virginia.

We weren't in his truck more than a few minutes when it became obvious why this is such a problem.

Just ahead of us we spotted a panel van with at least half a dozen large rolls of carpet-padding precariously stacked on its roof. The van was going at least 65 mph.

"What do you think when you see that?" I asked Newman.

"Disaster," he said.

"He only has one strap on it and the straps will get loose because of the wind pressure, then next thing you know he will lose that into traffic and it will cause an accident. Anything could happen once he loses that load, said Newman."

Tools, tires, even a backyard grill. This is just a small portion of what Stanley's crew pulls off the roads daily.

In January, a gigantic wire spool fell off a trailer on a Pennsylvania highway. It jumped the barrier and rolled into oncoming traffic for several minutes before coming to a halt.

In Minnesota, a 28 pound trailer hitch, traveling at freeway speed, came terrifyingly close to killing the driver. Police say it hit the windshield with 1,000 pounds of force.

And just a few months ago, a boat came off its trailer in the middle of one of northern Virginia's busiest interstates. (hyperlink to photo)

According to the latest AAA study, between 2011-2014 there were more than 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths caused by road debris crashes.

"That's because people are not securing their load," says John Townsend, of AAA. "They're being reckless, they're being careless and being deadly and dangerous."

Townsend says there needs to be tougher penalties for careless motorists.

"They want to get that mattress home and often times that mattress becomes airborne and it has the velocity of a guided missile that could kill, injure or maim."

And it's not just mattresses that go flying.

In AltaVista, Virginia, 44-year-old Tina Catron died after a log came loose on a passing truck and crashed through her windshield. She was the mother of six. Her four-year-old in the backseat survived.

We asked AAA to break out specific fatality numbers for ABC7 for road debris accidents in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia region.

Here's what we found…

Between 2011 and 2014 there were:

  • 16 deaths in Virginia
  • Eight deaths in Maryland
  • And zero in D.C.

The deadly accidents are most likely to occur on interstate highways, where speed is a factor.

"So, when you see someone hauling something," says Townsend, "you need to drive defensively, you need to increase your following distance and you need to change the lane because you don't know whether that load is secure or extremely dangerous and whether it can claim your life or not."

AAA says more than one-third of road debris crashes happen between 10 a.m. and 3:59 p.m. That's when many people are hauling or moving heavy items.

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