OGDEN — Toilets and tables, sofas and sheds, bicycles and bathtubs — these things and more are turning up with frightening regularity on Utah’s highways, endangering the lives of police and drivers, despite a three-year campaign to get people to secure the stuff they are hauling.
The junk isn’t just unsightly — it can be deadly.
On Monday night, a mattress and box spring killed Brigham City motorcyclist Royce Munns.
Munns, 46, was riding south on Interstate 15 at 10:45 p.m. when he ran into the mattress and box spring just north of the Weber/Box Elder county line. He and his bike went down and he was pronounced dead at the scene. He was not wearing a helmet.
The Utah Highway Patrol tried to find the owner of the mattress but came up empty.
“I had troopers go all the way to 21st Street, looking to see if someone was pulled over, tying down a load or something,” UHP Lt. Chris Simmons said Tuesday afternoon.
“We couldn’t find anyone, so I guess we’ll have to hope their conscience will get to them.”
Even if troopers do find the owner of the mattress, the only charge is driving with an unsecured load, a misdemeanor that carries a $500 fine.
Simmons said a manslaughter charge would be possible only if authorities can show that the person driving the vehicle knew the mattress fell off and left it anyway.
Simmons said Munns died because of the continuing problem of litter falling off trucks and trailers.
“Debris is something I would rank up there with one of the most dangerous things we do,” he said, because troopers have to go out into the highway’s lanes of travel and clear them.
The problem is mostly on the interstates and higher-speed highways.
Both Ogden police and the Davis County Sheriff’s Office said large litter sometimes ends up on streets in their jurisdictions, but it’s more of a traffic hazard than safety hazard, and then only if it blocks a lane.
Lt. Mark Lowther, Weber County sheriff’s spokesman, said a common incident is to see someone who has rented a cement mixer full of cement and is towing it home.
“They’ll stop at a stop sign and take off and slosh cement out,” he said,
Lowther, who rides a motorcycle, said, “I’m more scared of debris on the road and animals than I am of other cars.”
The cars are at least a little predictable, he said, but animals and junk will surprise you.
At highway speeds, things get deadly.
UDOT’s “Litter Hurts” website, http://litterhurts.utah.gov, has a gallery of things UDOT crews have found on the state’s roads, including sofas, barbecue grills, bicycles, toilets, motorcycles, ladders and even a few crushed cars.
“In a lot of cases, people are moving and they think they have their load secured. They go down the highway and whatever’s on the back bounces off,” said Vic Saunders, UDOT public involvement officer.
“A ladder, for example, on top of the load, it falls onto the roadway and now you have 12 feet of aluminum that might as well be a spear.”
Just being heavy doesn’t guarantee something will stay on a trailer.
“We had an incident northbound near Riverdale where a vehicle was carrying one of those large generators,” Simmons said. “It came unstrapped and it went all the way down onto the frontage road. It’s a perfect example.
“You’ve got a 5,000-pound generator. I’d hate to be on the receiving end of that.”
The UDOT website includes a video about an Ogden woman killed by litter three years ago.
In December 2008, Meredith Deckard swerved to miss a box that fell off the back of a pickup truck on I-15. She lost control, and her car was hit by a truck. She died a month later.
In another video, Alema Harrington, a broadcaster for the Utah Jazz, describes how he was driving on I-15 in 2010 when a piece of loose steel flew through his windshield, breaking his arm and coming within inches of killing him or cutting off his arm.
“The bottom line is, it’s preventable — just secure your load,” he said.
Simmons said he doesn’t know of any troopers who’ve been killed by litter, but about five years ago, his predecessor in the Weber County UHP office, Lt. John Mitchell, was driving near the 31st Street interchange west of Ogden when he saw a spare tire break loose from a car and go bouncing along the highway.
“He took the tire head-on, right through the windshield,” Simmons said. “He saw it coming and put himself in that position to protect the public.”
Mitchell was not injured.
Simmons said it’s hard to tell motorists what to do if they see something on the highway.
No single rule covers everything, except “travel at the posted speed so you have enough time to avoid the hazard.”
That hazard can be anything.
“We lost a boat two weeks ago just off the 21st Street entrance ramp,” Simmons said. “It came dislodged from the trailer and slid perfectly onto the ramp.”
Fortunately, the boat ended up in an unpaved area next to the ramp and didn’t hurt anyone.
“But there’s a perfect example. It’s not every day you have dispatch tell you, ‘Can you respond to a boat in traffic?’
“It makes your hair stand up.”