Deadly Debris

Nineteen-year-old Katie Puwalowski wasn’t killed by a drunk driver, or a texting driver, or any of the other “types” of drivers that get the lion’s share of attention for being menaces to other road users. Instead, she was killed last week outside of Pittsburgh by a tire that came off a Jeep, bounced across the median, and struck her vehicle.

How can we ever come to terms with such a crash, and the suddenness by which motorists can be targeted by flying objects?

The AAA Foundation has examined this issue in its research, in an effort to better understand the safety impact of vehicle-related road debris (VRRD). Our estimates suggest that nationwide, approximately 25,000 crashes and 80-90 fatalities each year are attributable to VRRD, and these may be under-estimates due to data limitations.

Statistically-speaking, this means VRRD crashes are rare, accounting for roughly 0.2% of fatal crashes and 0.4% of non-fatal crashes. But this rarity is of no comfort to Katie’s loved ones, or the loved ones of Sara Betancourt, who was killed in Connecticut last year when a metal bolt came off a dump truck and crashed through her windshield, or the loved ones of Channing Quinichett, who died on the Capital Beltway in 2009 when a tire detached from a truck that was being towed, bounced down the highway, and was launched onto her vehicle by a striking tractor-trailer truck.

The list goes on.

The lesson learned from each of these crashes is that we all have a responsibility to properly secure cargo, keep our vehicles in good working condition, and immediately investigate rattles and other indications of loose parts. After all, at highway speeds even seemingly-insignificant items can pose lethal hazards. In fact, roughly 63% of fatal VRRD crashes occur on roads with speed limits of 55 mph or higher, compared with 27% of fatal crashes overall.

Motorists can also take steps to avoid being the victims of VRRD crashes, of which remaining alert and observant at all times is the most important. See a tire tread in the lane next to you? Chances are there’s more rubber elsewhere, too. Are cars suddenly slowing and changing lanes up ahead? It could be due to a hazard that you can’t see yet, but have plenty of time to avoid because you were paying attention. And don’t hesitate to call the police if you see a vehicle with a load that appears to be improperly or inadequately secured.

While being attentive behind the wheel is crucial for a variety of reasons, the fact remains that perceiving and avoiding sudden hazards is always difficult. As such, we owe it to our fellow motorists to never put them in that position in the first place.

Remember: maintain your car, secure your load, and save a life.