The Many Risks of Roadway Debris

A new post by the Emergency Safety Responder Institute details the under-appreciated danger of road debris, which studies found was “was a factor in a total of more than 200,000 police-reported crashes” between 2011 and 2014, “resulting in approximately 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths.” Road debris is defined as “any substance, material, or object that is foreign to the roadway environment,” and can be found in travel lanes as well as a road’s shoulder or median. While all roadway debris is dangerous, perhaps the most danger lies on highway debris, given that drivers traverse highways at higher speeds than on normal roads, giving them less time to react to foreign objects. Debris also poses a risk to roadway responders, the professionals and volunteers who remove debris from the roads.

According to the Emergency Safety Responder Institute, most debris-related roadway incidents are the fault of negligent drivers, though others are due to mechanical mishaps. The majority of such incidents are preventable, the post argues, citing AAA data showing that “two in three debris-related crashes result from items falling from a vehicle due to improper maintenance or an unsecured load.” Such items might include tires and wheels that come off the vehicle, cargo that becomes unsecured, and tow trailers that become detached and collide with other cars or trucks on the road, according to AAA’s research.

For Safety Service Patrol members—professionals who coordinate with law enforcement agencies to respond to traffic incidents—dealing with highway debris is a risky task. The Emergency Safety Responder Institute recommends patrollers follow best practices such as the use of rolling roadblocks, responding from multiple vehicles, and ensuring accurate, thorough communication between dispatchers and responders. They should also high-visibility clothing and personal protective equipment as necessary to mitigate the risk from other drivers as well as the debris itself.

Responders should also be vigilant about the risk of dangerous drivers as they go about their task, and take care to ensure that shoulders and emergency lanes are kept free of debris as well as travel lanes: “The debris will remain a distraction if only left on the shoulder and in sight of approaching traffic, causing a hazard for vehicles that may need to pull to the shoulder in an emergency, or when moving over for approaching emergency vehicles,” the Institute observes. “This is especially true in dark conditions when the debris is not expected and cannot be easily spotted from a distance.”

More information about roadway debris is available via the Emergency Safety Responder Institute.

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