2007.11.21 Enjoy your holiday, but watch for spilled carrots

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

There are any number of things to be thankful for as Thanksgiving Day nears, but after reading a recent New York Times article, I’ve added one to my personal list: I’m thankful I don’t have to drive in California.

It seems that the Golden State is Ground Zero for the growing phenomenon of “unintentional” litter, that is, poorly secured items falling or blowing out of vehicles to block roadways. In many areas, such debris now accounts for more roadside trash than the traditional cans, bottles and fast food wrappers.

An example given in the article recounted a recent California day where a stray trampoline blocked two lanes of I-680 and a runaway rocking chair slowed traffic on I-580. Meanwhile, a spill of loaves of sourdough bread shut down U.S. 101.

The scattered bread brought back an old memory. Back in the 1960s, my family made a trip to southwest Missouri along old Route 66. Somewhere in central Missouri, we had to stop for a while because of a roadblock. A truck loaded with cheese had rolled over, spilling much of the cargo across the highway. Once the cheese was removed from 66, we were allowed to continue. If there had been a nearby bread truck accident as well, at least we could have made sandwiches while we were waiting.

Unfortunately, not all unintentional litter stories have punch line potential. Over 150 people have died in California in the last two years in accidents with objects on highways, included a deputy sheriff killed when he swerved to miss a stove that had fallen off a truck.

California’s state transportation department estimates that 140,000 cubic yards of such road debris falls onto state highways each year, an amount large enough to fill nearly 9,000 garbage trucks. That many trucks could cause their own roadblock, as they would stretch over 40 miles in length.

I was surprised to learn that there are people known as “litter anthropologists” who study such things. One such person attributes the growth of unintentional litter to an increase in self-hauling, rather than hiring a professional. A waste-consulting firm’s “litter analyst” quoted in the article adds the spurt in pickup truck sales in the past couple of decades has helped the problem grow.

Before I go any further, I have to ask, where would I go to become a certified litter analyst? Are there college degrees in such a field? The analyst’s conclusion does seem to make sense, however.

Since so many people now have trucks, there are more who just can’t resist the urge to do their own moving and hauling, even though obviously they haven’t learned that essential lesson of tying the load down. California leads the country with an estimated four million pickups on state highways. Thinking back to the garbage truck example, that many pickups would make a line something like 15,000 miles long. Now there’s a real roadblock.

In enforcing littering laws, some states have attempted to differentiate between debris like mattresses, ladders, dinette sets, building supplies, etc., and what might be termed “natural” litter. This natural litter varies from state to state.

In California, for instance, feathers from live birds or water are the only things allowed to fall from your vehicle and not leave you liable for a littering violation. In Nebraska, the exception is corn stalks. In Kentucky, it’s coal. I can understand the state wanting to help the industry, but would you like to get hit by a flying chunk of coal?

I would guess that potatoes falling from your vehicle might be allowable in Idaho and oranges in Florida. In our area, manure might be the unofficial local litter.

So what’s the worst non-lethal thing to fall from a vehicle? Greg Williams, a 27-year California Highway Patrol veteran, claims a carrot truck accident as his choice. “There’s nothing slipperier than a crushed carrot,” he said.

Keep all of this in mind as you travel on Thanksgiving. You might be lucky enough to retrieve a  baked turkey lost on the way to a family dinner, but beware. There could be a gravy spill around the next curve.

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