Hazards of the Highway
Expect the unexpected on the road
March 30, 2009
In the last issue, we asked readers if they had seen any flying mattresses in their driving days, and if so, how they avoided them. The tales we received went beyond mattresses and tire remnants to reclining chairs, flying canoes, and even a frozen beaver.
These odd items, according to experts, contribute to an estimated 140,000 cubic yards of road debris a year, or enough to fill 8,750 garbage trucks. They also make traveling treacherous; and, as you told us, the best way to stay safe is to keep your distance from other vehicles and stay aware of your surroundings. Here are some of the most interesting stories readers sent in:
Frozen Beaver and More
We have not seen any flying mattresses in our day—just deer, women’s pocketbooks, strips of tires, chunks of firewood, cardboard boxes, a diaper bag and a thoroughly frozen beaver. But we did see something especially unusual one cold, snowy day and I’m grateful for my husband’s quick thinking.
The last bit of driving from Greenwood, N.Y., to our home near Jasper is a steady downhill 5-mile course, starting with a tricky twist in the road (right where we once saw a frozen beaver), and then straightening out with several more gentle curves before the final stop sign.
We broke over the top of the hill coming home from church and there in the middle of the road stood three people. They were looking at their car, which was sideways in the road. We were on ice and couldn’t stop. My husband somehow managed to steer the car into a meadow on the left-hand side. We all had to be pulled out, but no one was hurt. I hate to think of the consequences if he had plowed into those three people.”
I have not seen any flying mattresses, but have seen a flying outhouse. A friend and I were once following a truck with the little wooden building on it. The outhouse was not tied down, and while going around a curve, it began to slide and then flew off the truck, landing in a million pieces on the roadway. We had slowed down and were following at a safe distance, so we were in no danger. We’ve gotten many laughs over what could have been a serious incident, but instead has been the “butt” of some jokes.
On a recent fishing trip with friends to western Pennsylvania, we were caravanning along Interstate 80 with our canoes lashed to our car and truck rooftops. While traveling at about 50 miles per hour, a canoe on the vehicle in front of us tore loose and sailed backwards towards our car. Fortunately, the driver of our car had not slept through his driver's ed classes and was far enough back to avoid hitting the canoe that was now dry-docked in the middle of the highway. We stopped, dragged the somewhat dented boat off the road, reattached it (with extra tie-down straps) and continued on our trip.
I was in Philadelphia, 1967, when the car in front of me dropped a built-up clump of snow and ice from behind a wheel. It looked beautiful as it skidded along in front of me at about 55 mph. That is until it hit an expansion joint and lollopped into the air. It hit my windshield dead center in front of my face (I even ducked). The windshield shattered, along with my heart, or so it felt.
I remembered this lesson 40 years later when I was again driving in the Philly area, this time as a driver of a cab-over truck, which means the very front of the truck was the windshield. The pickup in front of me had a ladder tied to it that didn’t look quite right. I immediately slowed down, switched lanes, put my flashers on and hoped it stayed put. As the hill got steeper, it broke loose and hit the road spinning. I was able to bypass the ladder on the left shoulder, avoiding a crash.
Flying Canoe, Part II
Last summer, we were headin’ north on Interstate 79 to attend a softball tournament in Meadville, Pa. We were following an SUV hauling a strapped-down canoe on its roof. The canoe suddenly broke loose from its strapping and became airborne, flying directly toward our car! It just as suddenly turned and floated toward the berm and “landed,” ending a truly frightening experience. Fortunately, we were following the SUV at a defensive-driving safe distance. We eventually pulled over and stopped to help the SUV occupants to better secure the canoe to the roof. This experience brought a new meaning of ‘tip-a-canoe’ to us.”
A hood unlatched
We were traveling on Interstate 80 in Northeastern Pennsylvania a few years ago when a car passed us in the left lane. As the car passed, my wife noticed the car’s hood was not completely latched. A few seconds later, with the car just ahead of us, the entire hood of the car came off and was floating in the air. Without time to think, I floored the car to get ahead of the ‘floating hood.’ Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw the hood crash to the roadway just behind our car. If I had not accelerated, the hood would have probably hit us directly with serious or fatal results. I guess the force of the air from my acceleration was just enough to keep it airborne so we could pass.
-Harry V. Marshall
State College, Pa.
The bath that wouldn’t budge
It wasn’t just the hot tub, blue and framed with polished wood, sitting square in the middle of the fast lane that got my attention, but also the young man standing in the highway trying to move it. I slammed on the brakes and put on my flashers. The young man tried to pull the spa with all his might, but it wouldn’t budge. His pickup truck was idling in the emergency lane with the tail gate open and bent haphazardly.
Fortunately a big gray pickup truck behind me also saw the situation and began to blink his hazards. I moved over to the right lane and let him take over. I also pulled over, called the state highway number and told them what was going on. “A hot tub… you’re kidding?” was their first response. I told them yes but my greater concern was for the young man standing in the highway trying to move this enormous thing by himself.
A job once took Marian on a stretch of highway known for dangerous debris, including boulders, tire remnants, and even a stray pit-bull. Here’s the rest of her story:
A Road with a Reputation
I had started a new job that meant about a 7-mile drive on a relatively new highway, I-485. The things I saw on this highway or that happened to me were truly shocking.
I had only been traveling for about a week on that highway, dodging the large strips of shredded tires here and there, when a pickup truck in the fast lane, carrying wired baskets of football size boulders had its tailgate bumped open by the sliding baskets. The baskets quickly slid out of the truck bed and fell, sending boulders like missile rockets across the highway lanes. Cars were breaking everywhere to avoid the boulders rolling down the lanes as the pickup slowly idled into the emergency lane.
By the second week of travel, a tractor-trailer far ahead of me doing about 80 mph in the 55-mph fast lane dropped a basketball size clump of dirt and rock. It bounced with lightning speed toward my car, flying up, hitting my car's windshield, cracking it from end to end. Somehow I was able to keep control of the car and pull over, grateful that the clump had not come through the windshield at my head.
I had no sooner replaced that windshield when a second tractor did the same thing. Despite intentionally traveling far from the trailer, there could be no escaping the large cakes of mud mixed with dirt flying off the bouncing dredgers on to the road. This time a dime size hole punctured my windshield.
The scariest occurrence was a tractor-trailer flipping up from under its wheels a four foot piece of shredded tire that had been laying in the fast lane. It shot down the highway like a bullet, flying under my niece’s car (I was a passenger), puncturing the gas tank. Cars quickly pulled up beside us, rolling down their window and saying gas was pouring out from under the car.
The emergency lane along that stretch of the highway was littered with car bumpers, wood racks, paint cans, and all sorts of debris, making it dangerous to pull off, so I prayed until we could pull off on the next exit. When we did pull off, the fire department came and crawled under the car to seal the hole. The car was towed. The most sobering point was when the fireman said, “I do not know why this car did not just blow up! It's obvious that the piece of tire hit the tank with such force that it's all dented and the hole is large enough that it all should have blown up immediately.”
Four hundred dollars later, my niece had a new gas tank but never trusted the car again and got rid of it.
I contacted the highway department about all the debris in the road and they came out shortly after and picked up tons and tons of debris. In fact there were so many complaints about debris consistently on this highway that the mayor got involved and pressured the necessary parties until they began to have prison inmates come in trucks to regularly pick up the debris.
The last, and one of the saddest, things I saw was a large pit-bull trekking along the emergency lane. Apparently it had escaped or been let loose and I feared for its life. I was able to call animal control who said they would go scour the highway and hopefully find it still alive.
Soon after, my place of employment moved, and I no longer had to travel this highway. I am most grateful every day to be spared that dangerous trek. All of these events have been unexpected but their danger has always been consistent and I know that I am lucky to be alive after traveling the infamously dangerous I-485!
A few years ago, my wife and I were traveling south on route 95 on our way to Bethlehem Pa. We were in the left lane with a 65 mph speed limit when all of a sudden there was a large reclining chair right in the center of our lane.
My first reaction was to check my rear and right side view mirror and take a quick glance to my right to be sure there was no car in my blind spot. Things happen so fast at speeds between 65-70 that you don’t have a lot of time to react in a situation like that. I squeezed by, taking about 2 ft of the center lane and barely missing the chair.
After going back into the left lane, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw another driver going into the center median and down a steep slope to a drainage area because of the chair
We were very lucky that day. I always try to observe the rule of leaving at least one car length per 10 mph of speed I am traveling between our car and the one ahead of me. If the driver behind me had been following that rule, he may have had the time to react like I did.
-Frank P. Rider