Dodging debris on the highway

Country Roads

During my days in radio news I wrote thousands of new stories and read thousands more from the United Press International news wire. I can remember a few of the stories I wrote back then but far fewer that came from the wire service.

One UPI dispatch that has remained vividly in my mind over the past 45-plus years is a chilling story of death on the highway.

A man was driving on an Iowa highway one night and, in the darkness, drove over a piece of pipe. Unfortunately, the pipe was thrown upwards and into the interior of the car where it impaled and killed the driver.

Ever since that story aired I’ve been paranoid about junk on the highway. While some things may be completely accidental, I have witnessed trucks and trailers where the load is not covered or tied down securely.

That may have been the case when I was eastbound on I-80 near Newton a number of years ago. I was in the right lane following a sedan at somewhere near the speed limit. Fortunately, I was paying attention.

The car ahead of me drove over a plank. In the second or two I saw the plank, I guessed it was a 2×8 about eight feet long. I didn’t see the plank until a tire threw it up from the road surface and at that point it appeared to be heading directly for my windshield. I instantly thought of the news story about the man who was impaled by the piece of pipe. A somewhat different scenario but likely the same outcome.

I immediately hit my brakes and as a result fell back far enough that the plank hit the front of my car, rather than the windshield, making a mess out of the grill and the right headlight. From there the board flew into the ditch on the right.

Upon inspecting the damage on the side of the road, I determined there was no damage to the radiator and that I could complete my journey with just one headlight.

I experienced déjà vu last week as I drove eastbound on I-235 west of downtown Des Moines. It was still dark, around 6:25 a.m., as I was heading to my weekly Rotary meeting.

Traffic was normal ̶ heavy. I was about 50 yards behind a car and there were vehicles on either side of and behind me.

I had not had my first cup of coffee and, while fully awake, was not yet at my sharpest point of the day.

Suddenly, in the limited illumination of my headlights, I saw two pieces of something black in the middle of my lane of traffic.

I couldn’t veer right or left and if I tried to stop I would be rear ended.

My only choice in that split second was to proceed. I heard (and felt) two loud thumps as I drove over the black objects. I determined that the black stuff must have been cast off rubber from a retreaded tire. Later that day a mechanic found no damage.

While I have seen rubble on the road in the country and in towns of all sizes, I am surprised how often I have encountered debris on I-235 in Des Moines. I have heard radio traffic reporters warn of debris on the freeway a number of times.

I probably should not be shocked. The Iowa Department of Transportation reports that I-235 ̶ especially in the western part of Des Moines proper ̶ is the busiest spot on Iowa’s roadways. In 2015, according to IDOT, that stretch of I-235 carried 130,000 vehicles per day. I’m confident the traffic flow has not diminished in subsequent years.

All of this leads me to wonder how one of those autonomous cars we are reading about will handle road debris. I am not looking favorably at cars without drivers even though I acknowledge electronics and robotics can be faster to respond than an old man without coffee on this way to his weekly Rotary meeting.

Another thought on that matter: as bad as many drivers are I think computers really don’t have to be that good to be better at driving cars. Think about it the next time you’re standing in line to renew your driver’s license. Would you trust some of those other folks over a computer?

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