A bird cage. A broken children’s playhouse. A basketball hoop.
It’s not a junk pile at a trash plant or a family backyard littered with toys.
It’s Interstate 95. And that’s dangerous.
“We’ve had refrigerators fall off pickup trucks. We’ve had dump trucks lose their loads,” said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Joe Sanchez.
Road debris played a role in more than 200,000 police-reported crashes, which resulted in about 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths from 2011 through 2014 across the country, according to an AAA auto club study. Crash-causing debris included sofas, mattresses even sex toys and dental implants. The number of crashes due to stuff on the road increased by 40 percent since 2001.
According to Florida law, vehicles are required to prevent all loads from “dropping, shifting, leaking, blowing or otherwise escaping.” This includes dirt, sand and rocks as well as trash or other objects. The law requires that all loads be covered with a tarp or device designed to secure the cargo.
The punishments for unsecured loads vary from $10 in states like Wisconsin to $5,000 and a year in prison in Washington state, according to AAA.
In Florida, Florida Highway Patrol punishes drivers with a $179 fine.
“It’s a common thing that happens,” Sanchez said. “People don’t take into consideration that when you’re carrying a load, you’re responsible for it.”
Debris crashes are more likely to happen on highways due to the high speeds that cause payloads, parts, wheels and tires to fly off vehicles. About one third of these crashes happen on highways, since speed also shortens the time drivers have to react to flying debris or junk lying on the road.
Sanchez suggested that drivers make sure they keep enough distance to stop, pull over or change lanes. More than one-third of the deaths reported in the study happened because a driver swerved to avoid hitting debris. In other cases, cars hit the debris and set off a series of crashes.
Ron Melancon, a Virginia man who runs a blog dedicated to road debris safety, said he’s been hit by tree trunks, loose bolts and even a tree limb.
“My windshield cracked and shattered,” Melancon, 53, said. “It sounds like you’re getting hit by a missile.”
In 2014, WLRN asked the Florida Department of Transportation’s clean-up contractors for a list of the stranger things they’ve had to pick up on and around I-95, which is infamous for its eclectic collection of debris. Among the items were toilets, money (both U.S. and foreign currency, bullets, tampons, abandoned boats, destroyed mobile devices, a wedding dress, a tuxedo, house doors, a pair of underwear, air conditioner units, condoms, makeup, love letters.
In some cases, the debris can have tragic consequences.
An Orlando man’s van was crushed a few weeks ago after a piece of scrap metal fell from an overturned truck. And in May 2016, a jogger was hit by one of the two loose tires that flew off a tractor trailer on the Rickenbacker Causeway near Key Biscayne. In an infamous 1988 case, a young teenager riding in the back seat of her family’s minivan on Interstate 95 in South Florida was impaled when a quarter-inch metal rod torpedoed through the window.
Tony Beynon, who lives in downtown Miami, said he stays of I-95 for the very reason of avoiding debris. He said he’s seen mattresses and trucks with “stuff hanging off the sides.”
“95 is a death trap,” Beynon, 58, said. “You see refrigerators and chairs and God knows what else.”
A Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman said drivers are responsible for both making sure their vehicles are safely loaded and paying attention to others’ loose loads.
“They really need to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on on the road,” said Barbara Kelleher. “Be a safe driver.”