Local 12 Investigates: Deadly debris

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - There’s a danger on the road: Debris that falls or flies off vehicles.

When items drop off at high speeds, they turn in to missiles that can pierce through cars or land as a hazardous obstacle in your path.

According to The American Automobile Association (AAA), road debris has caused more than 200,000 crashes in the last four years, with many of those crashes causing serious injury and death.

"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."

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.

In a ride-along with Newman, a crew from WJLA-TV, A Sinclair station, 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.

"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 are just a sample 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.

In Ohio, dangerous debris has caused a surprising number of crashes.

According to a list compiled by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) at the request of Local 12 News, in a five year period from 2012 to 2016, road debris caused 17,050 crashes across the state. 524 people were seriously injured in those wrecks, 97 people died.

Hamilton County topped the list of deaths from the debris, with 11 fatalities during that 5 year period. With a total of 962, Hamilton County is third highest in Ohio for debris-related crashes. (Franklin County tops the total crash list with 1483). when it for total crashes caused by debris

Back in Virginia, AAA says much of the blame for the flying debris rests upon drivers who have not properly secured their items.

"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.

"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."

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

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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