The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 21, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Secure your junk

Ralph Couey
For The Tribune-Democrat

— I rarely use this space to chip my gums. I much prefer to write about things that bring humor, joy, or deep thoughts; subjects that I hope have wide appeal. But after Tuesday morning, I just have to stop and take a stand.

We returned late Monday night from a trip to Denver for my middle daughter’s graduation. During that time, she also announced that we would be grandparents again. Tuesday morning dawned dim, wet, and gloomy (Welcome back to Pennsylvania, Ralph) but despite the weather, I headed off to work with a song in my heart. Everything was fine until I got about halfway down the Expressway. Just above the Widman Street exit, I rounded the curve to see a mess of debris in the left hand lane, most prominent of which was an uncoiled length of metal mesh fencing. With a car on my right and the concrete Jersey barrier on my left, I had nowhere to go but straight ahead. I applied the brakes, but resisted the temptation to slam the pedal to the floor, as the roadway was wet and even with ABS and traction control, I knew that a panic stop would not have a good outcome. I edged as close to the barrier as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I hit the fencing and chunks of wood.

It was a terrible sound, the kind of thing that makes you wince and hunch your shoulders. But, hearing no obvious sounds of breakage, I continued on. I called 911 and reported the junk and was told that the police and a road crew were on their way.

Once safely in my parking spot, I carefully checked the car, not seeing any obvious damage. The tires were still inflated, and going out at lunch, I didn’t see anything leaking underneath. I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful I had decided not to ride. If I had hit that mess on my motorcycle, my name would’ve been in this newspaper for altogether different reasons.

We see them all the time, people who haul things on flatbed trailers, in the bed of their pickup, or sometimes lashed precariously to the roof of a car or in a trunk under a partially shut lid held by a bungee cord. Folks have good intentions, but sometimes I see loads that shouldn’t have left the driveway, yet are careening down the highway.

As a vehicle moves, the wind blows. When the car or truck is going 50, then whatever is on the outside of the vehicle is being buffeted by 50-mph winds. At 70, those loads are buffeted by hurricane-force winds. And when the vehicle hits a bump or a pothole (some big enough to hold a television news reporter), the load shifts. When all that combines, stuff will fall off. For the motorist (or motorcyclist) unlucky enough to be behind when that happens, the results can be disastrous, even tragic.

Two years ago, my daughter-in-law, along with my granddaughter, barely escaped serious injury when a truck dropped an old tire out of its bed on a freeway. The tire took one bounce and went right through the front windshield of her car.

Spring and summer are the hauling seasons. People move, clear out junk from their homes and barns, bring home large purchases from stores and flea markets, all stowed, stuffed, or strapped to their vehicles.

If this describes you, than I urge you to remember that what seems tight and stable sitting still can come adrift bouncing down the road in high winds. I know that when you see things fall off the back that you may be unable to pull over and stop.

And I’m certainly not advocating a mad dash into traffic to retrieve the items. Plus you might be reluctant to call in and confess. But at least call 911 and report the presence of the stuff.

Getting authorities out there to block the lane and begin the cleanup could save someone’s life.

Please take the time to properly secure your load. Take two trips if you have to, and promptly report anything that falls off.

It’s the best way to keep the roads, and our consciences, clear.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.