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Roadside trash a headache

Proposal would boost fines on unsecured loads

UDOT's Gary Axbom sorts rubber from the other debris in a pile of junk removed from roadways at state expense. Roadside junks can be hazardous to drivers.
UDOT's Gary Axbom sorts rubber from the other debris in a pile of junk removed from roadways at state expense. Roadside junks can be hazardous to drivers.
Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News

Sofas, vacuums, dishwashers, cupboards: It's everything needed to furnish a house and more, said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake, as she described a pile of junk found on highways.

The items have been temporarily dumped outside a state-operated maintenance shed in Salt Lake City.

Each year, the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Highway Patrol spend hundreds of hours clearing litter and debris off state highways. Both agencies say the job is a nuisance. Moreover, they say, junk on the road is a hazard to motorists and workers.

Jones wants people to take notice. The senator is working on a bill she says would substantially increase the fine for traveling with an unsecured load on the highway. Money from the fine would be distributed to cities to remove junk from highways and to educate motorists about how to securely tie down their couches, grills, vacuums and more.

"People need to be more responsible and careful," she said. "Those who aren't should be punished. They are jeopardizing our safety and wasting our tax dollars."

Jones plans to release details of the bill during the Legislature's interim transportation meeting on Oct. 17.

Both UDOT and UHP say something should be done to stop debris from landing on roads. From January until mid-July of this year, UHP received more than 4,814 calls involving debris in Salt Lake County alone, said Sgt. Jeff Nigbur.

Of those calls, 280 were about crashes involving debris, 203 were calls to locate a vehicle spilling gravel on the road and 63 were to locate a person littering.

"It's a huge officer-safety concern," Nigbur said about the debris calls. "We don't want (motorists) to get hurt or killed."

Nigbur said problems also occur when motorists spill debris from their vehicles and pull off the freeway in order to try to recover the debris. "They have no clue as to how fast that traffic is traveling."

The debris also causes crashes. Earlier this year, a woman was impaled in the face by a piece of pipe that bounced up from a road. The pipe was pushed upward, toward her car, after a vehicle in front of the woman's car ran over it.

The woman survived, but other motorists have been killed as result of road debris.

When dispatchers receive calls about debris, troopers are sent to remove the items from the road, Nigbur said. Once removed, the items are then taken to a UDOT maintenance lot for temporary storage, and then trucked to a landfill with other debris.

UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said his agency spends about $1.8 million each year to remove debris from the highway. Last year, the state took about 3,000 truckloads, including 99,600 trash bags, to landfills, he said.

"It's becoming such a problem for us to clean it up, that no matter how many resources we allocate, we can't keep up," said Easton about the litter and debris on state highways.

Utah's fine for littering can be as much as $750, with a $100 minimum fine. Other states such as Maryland charge up to $30,000, depending on the size of the debris on the road.

Both Nigbur and Easton say fines and increased education may stop motorists from littering and failing to secure loads on the highway. "At this point, we have to change behavior," Easton said.