In the 2008 legislative session, lawmakers approved fines of up to $500 for drivers who fail to secure items on their vehicles that can fall off and create road hazards. The Utah Department of Transportation has begun a campaign to educate the public.
The responsibility of reducing accidents caused by objects that fall from moving vehicles rests on the shoulders of drivers, transportation officials have said.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that more than 25,000 accidents are caused every year by items such as lawn chairs, television sets or even hot tubs. The outcome of those accidents ranges from minor to moderate damage to the exterior of a vehicle, or in extreme cases, injuries or death.
Last year, the Deseret News reported that an 8-foot metal rod fell off a truck, bounced and went through the windshield of a Kaysville woman's car, impaling her face and lodging itself into the seat. Miraculously, the woman survived and has recovered from the accident.
In a statewide survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates this year, nearly 80 percent of Utahns reported they had faced objects that have fallen onto roadways. More than 45 percent of respondents reported that their vehicle had experienced damage because of road debris.
In the last legislative session, lawmakers recognized the severity large debris is creating on Utah roadways and passed SB44, increasing fines for littering. The law now requires that drivers properly secure items, with fines set as high as $500 for lost debris and $250 for littering.
"The safety impact that's made by people losing large debris is an issue for our staff, the Utah Highway Patrol and motorists," said Nile Easton, a UDOT spokesman. "People are having to swerve to avoid these objects, and that creates the potential for others to be hit and cause major accidents."
Litter is a daily occurrence, but instances of large objects being lost is becoming a more frequent and pressing problem, Easton said.
"We get around 20 to 30 calls a day to remove debris from roads," said Cameron Roden, a trooper and UHP spokesman. "We've seen couches, entertainment centers, swamp coolers ... you name it, we've picked it up."
UDOT collected about 45,000 cubic yards of litter or enough to cover a football field about 40 feet deep in 2006. The removal of the litter and debris scattered on the sides of roadways is costing Utah taxpayers more than $2 million each year, UDOT officials said. To begin getting information of the dangers created by road debris to the public, UDOT is planning to educate retailers such as lumber yards and furniture stores about the importance of encouraging their customers to secure their items before transit.
"We have a large number of customers who choose to take their purchases home on their own," said Paul Jensen, store manager for IKEA in Draper. "We will help our customers load their items, but because of liability issues we can't help secure them."
IKEA provides free twine and cardboard roof racks for customers to secure their loads and also has straps and tarps available for purchase in the store, but that is the extent of services they can provide, Jensen said. He agreed with UDOT's campaign slogan, "litter hurts," and said he would begin having his staff encourage customers to safely secure their items before leaving.
"I'd hate to see our products on roadways," Jensen said.In the coming weeks UDOT will have a touring display of items they have collected across the state to show motorists exactly what types of items they pick up. Easton said that with the variety of objects they've found, such as barbecue grills and refrigerators, they could furnish a house, though he added "it's usually not anything people would want to keep."