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You’re driving along, and suddenly you have to swerve to avoid it—a large piece of a tire, or a discarded box, or some large debris that you can’t identify.

These things are dangerous, especially when they show up on a major highway where vehicles are rolling along at 75 miles per hour or faster. It’s hard to tell just how dangerous, however, until you start looking at the data.

That’s just what the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety did recently, and they released a report about it. According to their findings, road debris was a factor in an estimated average of over 50,000 police-reported crashes, which resulted in nearly 10,000 injuries and 125 deaths annually in the U.S. between 2011 and 2014.

They further reported that compared with crashes that didn’t involve debris, debris-related crashes were about four times as likely to occur on Interstate highways.

Debris Usually Comes from Other Vehicles

What constitutes a debris-related crash? The AAA defined them as follows:

  1. The vehicle struck or was struck by an object that fell from another vehicle.
  2. The vehicle struck a non-fixed object in his lane.
  3. The vehicle tried to avoid the debris and subsequently crashed.

Type 1 crashes involved vehicle parts like tires, cargo, or a trailer that became detached and struck another vehicle. Crashes caused by debris attributable to a previous event in the same crash or a recent previous crash didn’t count, nor did those that involved a tree or other roadside object that fell onto the vehicle. Crashes that occurred in work zones were also not included in the analysis.

Results showed that in Type 2 crashes, the debris was vehicle related 36 percent of the time. In Type 3 crashes, the debris was vehicle related 94 percent of the time. Though the debris was usually wheels, tires, or other parts of the vehicle that came off, several crashes also involved cargo like furniture and appliances that fell onto the road. Trailers that became detached from the vehicles towing them also commonly caused crashes.

Which Type of Debris-Related Accident is Most Dangerous?

The analysis also found which type of debris-related crashes were most dangerous for drivers and passengers. Though there were more crashes in which a vehicle struck or was struck by debris than there were crashes caused by drivers swerving to avoid debris, it was the swerving crashes that were more likely to result in injuries and fatalities.

Out of every 1,000 of these swerving crashes, for example, there were an estimated 426 injuries and 5.6 deaths. In contrast, crashes where the vehicle struck or was struck by debris from another vehicle resulted in 163 injuries and 1.4 deaths per 1,000 crashes. Where the vehicle struck a non-fixed object in the travel lane resulted in 141 injuries and 2.2 deaths per 1,000 crashes.

The researchers theorized that the higher number of injuries and deaths resulting from swerving crashes came about because of other harmful events that occurred while the driver was trying to avoid the debris, such as:

  • Rollovers
  • Crashes with trees, guardrails and concrete barriers
  • Crashes with other vehicles

Finally, researchers noted that debris-related crashes were over four times as likely as non-debris related crashes to occur on Interstate highways. They were also roughly half as likely as non-debris-related crashes to result in injury or death.

In a related press release, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety research director Jurek Grabowski stated that the report showed not only that road debris is dangerous, but that road-debris-related crashes are preventable. He added: “Drivers can easily save lives and prevent injuries by securing their loads and taking other simple precautions to prevent items from falling off the vehicle.”

Jennifer Ryan, director of state relations for the AAA, added that drivers have a big responsibility when it comes to preventing debris on the roads, and that the penalties can be hefty.




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