Dodging the Disaster: Responding to Highway Debris

One of the main functions of Safety Service Patrols (SSP) is responding to calls for roadway debris removal. These responses can be as dangerous as any other event that we typically respond to and most require immediate attention to prevent possible secondary incidents from occurring. Sadly, while preparing this article a news story was forwarded to me relating a tragic event that occurred involving the removal of debris from the Kennedy Highway near Omaha Nebraska. On Thursday July 30th 2020 John Holcomb 70, a volunteer with the Metro Area Motorist Assist Program since 2014 was struck and killed as he stepped out to remove tire debris. Typically, the volunteer's tasks would include helping stranded motorists with gas or changing a tire or clearing debris from the roadway. This is the twenty ninth struck-by line of duty death, and the third Safety Service Patrol responder killed in the line of duty in the U.S. this year. These incidents involving debris occur daily, with an ever-increasing frequency, even with millions of dollars spent in public education campaigns warning drivers to secure their loads, and advising them on the liability of the driver being responsible for their vehicle, it's load, and contents. It is incredibly important for us as roadway responders to train on, and understand the danger involved with these types of roadway responses.

Not all debris related incidents are caused by negligent drivers, but the majority are. Some are related to mechanical failures. Only a small number are not preventable, an example being debris that is blown into the roadway from a storm. An equally amazing aspect is how under reported these incidents are, and the amount of time and money that is spent (public, and private) dealing with the removal of, and damage caused by debris. Highway debris can be any substance, material, or object that is foreign to the roadway environment. It is found both on the non-travelled portion (shoulder or median) and in the active travel lanes. Both the danger and distraction caused is well known by all emergency responders, but the response and removal of it is not a shared responsibility by all responders. According to AAA studies between 2011-2014, road debris was a factor in a total of more than 200,000 police-reported crashes, resulting in approximately 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths. Road debris can be extremely dangerous to motorists, especially on highways where cars travel at higher speeds and have less time to react to objects in the road.

Many debris-related crashes are preventable. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, two in three debris-related crashes result from items falling from a vehicle due to improper maintenance or an unsecured load. Common types of road debris include parts becoming detached from the vehicle (e.g. tires and wheels), unsecured cargo (e.g. furniture and appliances), and tow trailers becoming separated and hitting other vehicles (AAA Exchange 2017).

Debris such as this large object causes motorists to deviate from their path of travel and are not easily seen in time to allow for motorists to react, especially on high speed highways and roadways. Another danger is presented when motorists stop and attempt to remove, pickup, or load the object with no advance warning to approaching traffic.
Debris such as this large object causes motorists to deviate from their path of travel and are not easily seen in time to allow for motorists to react, especially on high speed highways and roadways. Another danger is presented when motorists stop and attempt to remove, pickup, or load the object with no advance warning to approaching traffic.

Best practices for responding to these types of incidents include utilizing rolling roadblocks, response from multiple vehicles or 'wolf packing' and timely dispatch/response relaying good communication of the location, type, resources needed, and extent of damage potential. These incidents most times begin as minor duration incidents but if not handled in a timely manner can quickly result in becoming intermediate, and up to major long term incidents. Other best practices include always donning high visibility apparel, and proper personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hand, head, foot, and eye protection. A proper scene size-up and assessment of the traffic conditions must be made, and tactics for proper and safe traffic control must be determined and utilized quickly. Best practices for response include advance warning, proper traffic control/blocking methods, pre-planning, and training for these types of incidents.

Debris removal can be challenging and can require out of the box tactics to mitigate them. Recommendations for tools to handle debris removal include items such as flat head shovels, scoop shovels, push brooms, power blowers, rock rakes, tow chains with J-hooks/chain hooks, tamp/pry bars (for getting under plywood sheets and for leverage on heavy and awkward items) and push bumpers. The potential for responder injury during debris removal must be considered too. These injuries can include cuts, soft tissue/crushing injuries, strains, sprains, eye, and respiratory injuries. Usage of proper PPE, and safety methods must be trained on, practiced, and used at all times.

The most important first step when responding to calls for debris is to establish proper traffic control measures whether it is solely using blocking vehicles, or by supplementing the blocking vehicles with other temporary traffic control devices such as traffic cones. One consideration is to block the shoulder or adjacent lane where the debris is being removed to (if it is not being placed in a vehicle for removal) because frequently when blocking a lane, some impatient motorist will attempt to pass on the shoulder, or adjacent lane where the personnel may be exposed. Be vigilant and aware of this possibility, especially when it is going to be a single piece of debris that may be retrieved quickly. It is also a best practice to remain upstream of the debris, especially when motorists may be using the shoulder or an adjacent lane to maneuver around the debris. If debris is spotted while on routine patrol it is best to avoid stopping too quickly, when there is insufficient time to warn the approaching traffic from the upstream position. It is better to bypass the debris regardless of the type, and instead make a safer return and approach using better advance warning or another blocking vehicle before trying to "quickly" remove it alone or from a compromised position.

Some size-up questions to consider are: Can approaching traffic see and avoid the debris for a short period until a full response occurs or does it require immediate traffic control/advance warning prior to full response? What type or size of debris is present, and will it be removed from the roadway or just monitored from a safe location using advance warning until it clears itself to a degree? Will the debris require additional personnel to remove, lift, and/or load? Is this debris going to be safe for most vehicles (including motorcycles) to pass around, or over and possibly strike with their tires as it is being carried further downstream and makes its way out of the lanes on its own? (e.g. rubber shreds, tempered glass, small wood debris, cardboard, clothing, or lightweight plastic/paper) Or will it be too dangerous for a motorcycle to safely pass over, or avoid? (e.g. metal shards, metal debris, gravel, rocks, small to medium tire debris, large plate glass or glass pieces, plywood, boards, carpet, tarps, large cardboard) Is it a type of debris that will cause damage to vehicles or motorcycles if it is struck or kicked up by larger vehicles as they pass over or through it? (e.g. boards, broken pallets/wood debris/shards, pipes, larger rocks, plywood, large tarps/plastic sheets) Is it a substance that will create slippery conditions to vehicles including motorcycles? (e.g. diesel, gas, oil, coolant, etc.) Will it create reduced visibility conditions of the roadway/travel area from dust or powder? To what extent?

Most incidents involving response to debris can be cleared quickly, and almost every incident on the highway will involve some type of debris removal or substance coverage. It is especially important to keep shoulders clear of debris too, and not just the travel lanes. Too many times the debris is only removed to the shoulder and may take a longer time to be fully cleared. Debris should be removed to the farthest point away from the roadway that allows the shoulder to remain unobstructed also. Routine patrols should include regular removal of debris from the emergency lane/shoulder. The debris will remain a distraction if only left on the shoulder and in sight of approaching traffic, causing a hazard for vehicles that may need to pull to the shoulder in an emergency, or when moving over for approaching emergency vehicles. This is especially true in dark conditions when the debris is not expected and cannot be easily spotted from a distance As we discuss in TIM courses even incidents, vehicles, debris, and objects ON THE SHOULDER reduce the normal flow capacity of the roadway by up to 17%! The debris and objects take the motorists attention as it is spotted when passing causing a momentary distraction. Some motorists will even attempt to stop and retrieve items that they may see creating another unsafe condition.

It is a recommended practice for most Safety Service Patrols to note the locations of, remove (when practical to do so using safe methods), and also initiate the removal of vehicles, objects and debris that are considered a hazard due to their immediate proximity to the travel lanes of the roadway. This should not limit removal to 'just from the travel lanes. Many times, debris and objects on the shoulders find their way into the travel lanes by being struck, brushed, or blown into travel lanes by passing traffic. This will cause an immediate need for clearance anyway, and proactive methods will prevent this. Most times objects and debris can be relocated and removed later by road maintenance crews. Other sweeping and clearing operations are normally coordinated with highway maintenance crews and contractors and are done in large area sweeps using blocking vehicles, advance warning units and crews. Communicate these locations and coordinate with those responsible for this type of removal, and it will go a long way to keeping traffic flowing smoother, and safer. Stay safe, train, and be prepared for what you will encounter on the highways!

About the author John M. Sullivan: John M. Sullivan is a Highway Response Supervisor 1 with the Tennessee Department of Transportation 'HELP' Unit serving Nashville and Middle Tennessee since 1999. Mr. Sullivan is also a Lieutenant FF with the Pegram FD, and a TIMS, EVOC, and Vehicle Extrication Instructor. John has been married 20 years and he and his wife Teresa have a teenaged daughter.

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