A recent American Automobile Associaation (AAA) study on securing loads is quite scary. It concludes that, between 2011 and 2014, over 200,000 crashes involved debris on U.S. roadways causing more than 500 deaths and approximately 39,000 injuries (some quite serious). And, sadly, these incidents were all avoidable.
About two-thirds of debris-related crashes are the result of items falling from a vehicle due to improper maintenance and unsecured loads. In New York, a motorist who fails to secure his or her load can be charged with a misdemeanor, a criminal offense, and be even given up to 30 days in jail. Further, that motorist can be personally sued if he or she negligently secured their load and it causes death or serious injury.
New York’s secured load law is governed by Vehicle And Traffic Law Section 377. This section states that: “No vehicle which is designed or used for the purpose of hauling logs or other materials which by their very nature may shift or roll so as to be likely to fall from such vehicle, shall be operated or moved over any highway unless its load is securely fastened by such safety chains, cables or other suitable devices as will effectively prevent the shifting or falling of such load or any part thereof, from the vehicle” (emphasis added). While, at first blush, this statue would appear to only apply to operators of logging trucks, because it also contains the terms “used” and “other materials”, I interpret to broadly include a motorist who, for example, un-securely ties a mattress to the roof of his or her car.
Similarly, VTL Section 380-a makes it “unlawful to operate on any public highway any open truck or trailer being utilized for the transportation of any loose substances, unless said truck or trailer has a cover, tarpaulin or other device.” Of course, this law only applies to trucks and trailers so it is not relevant to a motorist who drives a car with “loose substances”.
The AAA study found the following patterns in debris-related crashes:
- Nearly 37 percent of all deaths in road debris crashes resulted from the driver swerving to avoid hitting an object. Overcorrecting at the last minute to avoid debris can increase a driver’s risk of losing control of their vehicle and make a bad situation worse.
- More than one in three crashes involving debris occur between 10:00 a.m. and 3:59 p.m., a time when many people are on the road hauling or moving heavy items like furniture or construction equipment.
- Debris-related crashes are much more likely to occur on Interstate highways. Driving at high speeds increases the risk for vehicle parts to become detached or cargo to fall onto the roadway.
The most common types of vehicle debris are:
- Parts becoming detached from a vehicle (tires, wheels, etc.) and falling onto the roadway
- Unsecured cargo like furniture, appliances and other items falling onto the roadway
- Tow trailers becoming separated and hitting another vehicle or landing on the roadway
Drivers can decrease their chances of being involved in a road debris crash by:
- Maintaining Their Vehicles: Drivers should have their vehicles regularly inspected by trained mechanics. Badly worn or underinflated tires often suffer blowouts that can leave pieces of tire on the roadway. Exhaust systems and the hardware that attach to the vehicle can also rust and corrode, causing mufflers and other parts to drag and eventually break loose. These items can easily be spotted by a qualified mechanic as part of routine maintenance.
- Securing Vehicle Loads: When moving or towing furniture or other large items, it is important to make sure all items are secured. To properly secure a load, drivers should:
- Tie down load with rope, netting, bungee cords or straps
- Tie large objects directly to the vehicle or trailer
- Cover the entire load with a sturdy tarp or netting
- Don’t overload the vehicle
- Always double check load to make sure it is secure
In sum, one way to ensure that your car or truck is pulled over is to leave a trail of debris as you drive down the highway. Such a vehicle is an easy mark for police officers. More importantly, it is extremely dangerous. To avoid inflicting harm, lawsuits and traffic tickets, it is, therefore, critical, to make sure that your load is properly secured. And, for other drivers, keep a look out for potential unsecured loads and avoid driving behind such vehicles.