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The last thing any driver would expect is to see is a mattress hurtling through the air on a collision course with their vehicle. Yet such incidents occur more frequently than you might expect and the outcome can be costly and even deadly.

As a traffic reporter for radio station 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. As of early May 2022, he had counted 28 mattresses and 16 ladders.

"Usually, we get somewhere around 100 of each during the course of a year," he says.

One listener recently told Hildebrand that in a one mile stretch of blacktop in the center of St. Louis, he spotted a mattress, a ladder, and an office chair.

If you drive much, you're bound to encounter the occasional road hazard. At best the encounter will make a good story, but it can also be dangerous.

tip iconTIP“Road debris can be extremely dangerous, but all of these crashes are preventable,” said Jurek Grabowski, the AAA’s director of research for traffic safety. “Drivers can easily save lives and prevent injuries by securing their loads and taking simple precautions to prevent items from falling off the vehicle.”

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.

  • Road debris is a common hazard that can sometimes cause serious accidents.
  • Collision coverage will pay for repairs if you accidentally run into or over an object on the road.
  • Comprehensive auto insurance kicks in if the object flies through the air and hits your car.
  • Regardless of how the accident occurred, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries if the other driver is at fault for an unsecured load.

How common is road debris?

How much stuff ends up in the road? While most road debris is harmless, there's a lot of it.

Every year Caltrans, the agency responsible for California’s highways and bridges, collects some 270,000 cubic yards of trash along the state’s roadways – the equivalent of about 18,000 garbage truck loads.

Among the most common items reported: Christmas trees. Highway patrol officers also see their fair share of furniture, lumber, tools, mattresses, garbage and appliances.

The Illinois Department of Transportation says it spends more than $6 million a year cleaning up road debris – or enough taxpayer money to repave about 30 miles of road.

In 2022, the Utah Highway Patrol issued an urgent appeal to drivers to take more care in securing their loads following a rash of incidents. In one case, a chunk of brake assembly smashed through the windshield of a car on I-15, resulting in a fatality.

Most of the things that end up in the road are from passenger vehicles, 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 embedded with metal.

Kristin Luehrs, a traffic reporter for WTVR CBS Channel 6 in Richmond, Virginia, 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.

Does car insurance cover road hazards?

Car insurance does cover damage done by road debris accidents. If your vehicle is damaged from running into or running over an object in the road, then your collision coverage will pay for repairs. If the object flies through the air and hits your car, then your comprehensive coverage will come into play. Keep in mind, you may need to pay a deductible when you make a collision or comprehensive claim.

Personal injury protection comes into play should treatment for injuries be required as well as follow-up care.

Who is responsible for road debris damage?

If the accident was the result of someone failing to properly secure a load, you might be able to make a claim against another driver's liability insurance.

In such instances, a dashboard camera can come in handy. The camera would capture the accident and possibly the license plate number of the car or truck that lost the object.

However, in instances where the debris is already loose on the road, there's really no-one to blame. Fortunately, insurance doesn't see it as an at-fault accident.

What are the penalties for not securing items in or atop your car?

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.

In Utah, where there were 1,977 crashes caused by road debris in 2021, drivers are faced with escalating fines for repeated bad behavior. First-time offenders face a $260 fine for failing to secure a load, but repeat offenders are hit with a $510 penalty. Repeat offenders who cause multiple accidents face a $760 penalty.

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 do you avoid debris on the freeway?

While it is sometimes impossible to avoid hitting debris, the AAA offers these tips to stay safe and protect others from harm:

  1. Maintain "a high visual horizon." Continually search the road ahead at least 12 to 15 seconds for debris.
  2. Don’t tailgate. By leaving at least 3 to 4 seconds of following distance, you can see potential objects in the road ahead easier.
  3. If you can't avoid something in the road, it's probably safer to hit it than to swerve and risk losing control of the car. Safely reduce your speed as much as possible prior to making contact.
  4. Properly secure a load on your vehicle. Test your cargo before you leave and if it moves around, then do a better job of tying it down.
  5. When driving at dusk and dawn be on alert for animals on or near the road.
  6. 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. Don’t try to dodge traffic to retrieve the item.
  7. Call 911 to report hazards in the roadway.

Frequently asked questions: Insurance and road debris

Is hitting road debris an at-fault accident?

Generally, insurance companies consider any objects lying in the road as avoidable, and therefore an at-fault claim. Depending on the circumstances there may be several avenues to file a claim.

  • Collision coverage: Collision coverage typically kicks in when a policyholder drives over debris and it is not known who was at fault.
  • Comprehensive coverage: This type of insurance may apply if an object was flying through the air before striking the vehicle.

Is hitting road debris covered under comprehensive insurance?

It depends.  If you hit a tree or big rock that’s fallen in the road, then it’s a collision insurance claim because you collided with the object. But if a tree fell on your car or a boulder landed on your hood, then most insurers would classify the incident as a comprehensive insurance claim.

--Additional reporting by Barbara Marquand

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