As a traffic reporter for Y98 in St. Louis, Lance Hildebrand has warned listeners about all sorts of weird stuff in the road: sofas, wheelbarrows, aluminum siding, chains, even a bowling ball.
"Pretty much every rush hour, you'll get a report of something that's fallen off a truck or somebody's car," he says.
But nothing shows up more than ladders and mattresses -- so much so that every year Hildebrand and his listeners keep a tally.
"Usually we get somewhere around 100 of each during the course of a year," he says.
If you drive much, you're bound to encounter the occasional oddball hazard. At best the encounter will make a good story; at worst, it could cost you your life. An AAA Foundation study estimated that road debris causes 25,000 accidents a year.
Make sure you know how to drive safely to avoid unexpected objects, what to do if you can't miss them and how auto insurance works in case you hit or are hit by something.
Junk out of the trunk
How much stuff ends up in the road?
In 2013, CalTrans, the agency responsible for California's highways and bridges, spent $62 million cleaning up 155,000 cubic yards of litter and junk along that state's roadways. That is enough to fill more than 1,000 swimming pools, each containing 30,000 gallons of garbage.
"It's a widespread problem," says Daniel Hill, spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We get hundreds of calls across the state for roadway hazards that come from vehicles that are poorly loaded or poorly secured."
Among the most common items reported: Christmas trees. Highway patrol officers also see their fair share of furniture, lumber, tools, mattresses, garbage and appliances.
In St. Louis, Hildebrand says the weirdest thing he's ever reported in the road was an artificial leg.
"I never heard whether it was reunited with the owner," he says.
Most of the things that end up in the road are from passenger vehicles, Hill says, but sometimes the roadway junk comes from commercial trucks, such as tire treads from big rigs. Some commercial truck owners retread tires instead of replacing them, and occasionally the new treads separate from the tires. Often the truck driver doesn't realize what's happened until later. With 18 wheels, the loss of tread on one isn't noticeable while driving.
The pieces of tread look harmless, but the rubber is imbedded with metal.
"They're affectionately referred to as 'gators' because if you try to grab one, you'll get cut up," Hill says.
Kristin Luehrs, a traffic reporter for WTVR CBS Channel 6 in Richmond, Va., tells of one driver whose pickup was hit by a whole wheel -- not just the tread -- that flew off a big rig. The wheel hit the hood and smashed the windshield. Amazingly, the pickup driver was able to pull off the road unscathed.
"He looked like the fear of God was put in him," Luehrs says.
How insurance works
Car insurance will come to the rescue in such instances. If your vehicle is damaged from running into or running over an object in the road, then your collision coverage will pay for repairs, says Insure.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. If the object flies through the air and hits your car, then your comprehensive coverage will come into play. You pay a deductible when you make a collision or comprehensive claim. Personal injury protection or medical payments would pay for treatment of injuries.
You might be able to make a claim against another driver's liability insurance if the accident was the result of someone failing to secure a load.
"It's one reason to have a dash cam," Gusner says.
The camera would capture the accident and the license plate number of the car or truck that lost the object.
Regardless, Gusner advises making a police report, which will help establish the facts for the insurance claim.
Drivers who carry items in or atop their cars are required by law in most states to secure them properly; penalties range from $50 under littering statutes in a few states to as much as $5,000 in Washington - plus jail time - if another person is injured.
Tickets for failing to secure a load typically do not appear on a driver's motor vehicle record and thus do not affect car insurance rates.
How to dodge roadway danger
Reports of such hazards are enough to scare anybody off the roads. Hill offers these tips to stay safe and protect others from harm:
- Maintain "a high visual horizon." Look far ahead, not just one or two cars in front of you, so you have time to change lanes before you reach a potential hazard.
- If you can't avoid something in the road, it's probably safer to hit it then to swerve and risk losing control of the car, Hill says. He tells of a young woman who was driving on a highway at night with her sister and niece as passengers when she suddenly came upon a garbage can. She swerved, lost control of the car, ran into a tree and was killed. Her sister was seriously injured, and her niece, fortunately, escaped with minor injuries.
- Properly secure a load on your vehicle. Test your cargo before you leave, Hill says, and if it moves around, then do a better job of tying it down.
- If you lose something from your vehicle, pull off to the side of the road where it's safe, call 911, and stay in your vehicle with your seat belt fastened. "We never advise someone to clear the roadway themselves," Hill says. "Pedestrians misjudge the closure rate. An oncoming car appears to be traveling slower than it is -- all of a sudden the vehicle is on top of you."
- Call 911 to report hazards in the roadway.
In St. Louis, meanwhile, the ladder and mattress tally continues.
"Mattresses almost always win," Hildebrand says.
But ladders come close when the economy is good. The number of ladders was about even with mattresses in the go-go early 2000s, dropped precipitously during the recession and is picking up this year.
As of early May the tally was 26 ladders and 27 mattresses.