I was serenading my children by singing Queen’s “We will, we will rock you,” while driving toward Missouri City to my son’s soccer game when suddenly the inspiring energy turned to panic.
I swerved, jerking my car to straddle a huge gardening rake that was in my lane on the Beltway. “Hold on,” I said. I gasped, swore and everything hushed. “It’s OK! It’s OK! There was a rake, but I missed it!”
I went back to the anthem song, but I could feel my eyes tear up, still shook up by the fragility of life on the roads. It was horrifying thinking about how in an instant my kid’s life and safety could be at risk because of negligent debris left on roadways. I was also worried about other vehicles behind me.
From huge plastic bins and buckets, to bags of trash, random metal, ladders and plywood, chaos can reign on roads that thousands of people drive daily in the Houston region.
I dug into why so many dangerous objects litter the roads, and I took my concerns to TxDOT spokesperson Leo Flores.
“What it primarily comes down to is people are not properly securing the items they are hauling in the back of their vehicles,” Flores said. “TxDOT sees everything from mattresses, furniture, strollers, cribs and even building materials. There is a running joke among our maintenance crews that you could build and furnish a whole house from what we see left on the highways.”
The types of debris, Flores said, can depend on the time of year. “During the summertime there’s a spike of DIY items like building materials,” he said. “During the school year, you may see more mattresses and furniture.” Also, tire shreds are more common in the summer due to extreme heat.
“Who picks up the debris would depend on whoever has jurisdiction over the road,” Flores said. “That can be the city, county, or the state. TxDOT maintains state and federal roads and highways.”
Flores said roadway debris in Houston decreased in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. However, since then, there has been a 3 percent yearly increase. In TxDOT’s Houston district, which spans six counties, maintenance crews cover about 120,000 miles per year where they patrol and remove roadway debris.
“Due to the increase, we have ramped up patrols using our in-house and contractor forces to address the issue,” Flores said.
Preparing for a safe transport
I asked Flores what is the best way to transport dressers, mattresses or similar items from your home to your friend’s home across town. He stressed the importance of having the right vehicle for the job so you can properly secure the item.
“Neglecting to properly tie things down is the number one reason for these kinds of incidents,” Flores said. “If you are inexperienced or unsure, it is best to take the service road, where there is more controlled speed and stop lights that allow you to easily pull over to check on the load.”
If you are traveling a long distance, Flores said, “You should pull over once every hour to make any adjustments as needed.”
Before school started for my kids, on Interstate 10 I saw a dresser, a ladder and long tree branches with leaves sitting out of a trailer almost hitting another vehicle as it passed by. Yet, Texas Transportation Code 621.206 states “a vehicle or combination of vehicles may not carry a load that extends more than 3 feet beyond its front or, except as permitted by other law, more than 4 feet beyond its rear.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about the fines in Houston for these loads.
For this story, Houston’s Municipal Courts Department provided a few examples of what it will cost if you get a ticket.
The fine for a passenger vehicle carrying a load extending more than 6 inches beyond the right or left side fender is $138.
A ticket for loads extending more than 3 feet beyond the front of the vehicle is also $138.
Houston’s Municipal Courts Department data show from Jan. 1, 2019 to Sept. 1, 2023 there have been only 98 tickets for six types of extended loads.
Those tickets include 26 issued for passenger vehicles carrying a load extending more than 6 inches beyond the right side fender.
More 311 calls for debris removal
Houston Public Works has seen a 16 percent increase in 311 requests to remove debris over the past three years, explained Erin Jones, the public information officer, in an email in August.
In fiscal year 2021, there were 1,970 calls for debris on Houston streets, service roads and highways. The next year there were 1,736 calls. In the 2023 fiscal year, 2,066 calls.
Soccer season is in full swing, which means I’m back on toll roads for weekend games and tournaments, so I was curious about what the Harris County Toll Road Authority was doing about debris.
Since 2020, HCTRA’s Incident Response Team has picked up 17,106 pieces of debris, said HCTRA spokeswoman Roxana Sibrian. This effort is additional to the debris cleaned up by HCTRA’s roadway contractor conducting routine debris sweeps of the system, Sibrian said.
Road debris is not only a risk to driver safety but can cost drivers money; for example, replacing tires after unexpectedly hitting plywood with nails in it. Unfortunately my fiancé experienced this last fall while driving south from George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
“Roadway debris generally causes flat tires and broken windshields. However, depending on the size and or material, more severe damage can occur,” Sibrian said. “Vehicle crashes can also occur when a driver overcorrects or stops too quickly in a high-speed lane. Be alert and remember to maintain a safe following distance of at least three seconds.”
If you see road debris, disabled vehicles, unsafe drivers, or other hazardous conditions on Harris County toll roads, notify HCTRA at 281-584-7500. If the debris is large enough that it could cause a serious injury or damage, and is in a moving lane of traffic, report it to 911.
If something falls out of your vehicle, Sibrian said do not attempt to recover the item yourself. You could be struck by another vehicle or cause a crash.
While driving to my kids’ activities I’ve seen a plush armchair, folding chairs, a wheelbarrow, a table with busted legs, cardboard boxes, even a doll house and children’s kitchen set, and many trash bags full of who knows what.
I wonder if we need more education about extended loads and safety precautions, or stricter codes that mean more violations. The number of fines feels awfully low considering the thousands of 311 requests to remove debris over the past three years. Houston drivers and tourists shouldn’t have to worry about their kids and loved ones every time we get in the car because of something on the road.
Debris is litter, I remind my kids. When they ask if they can spit their gum out the window I say, “Eeww, no way!” They say it is just gum, but it isn’t a good habit to throw anything out the window onto roads.
“Look!” I told my kiddos on the way to soccer training during rush hour recently. “Look at that huge gray storage bin that bounced off someone’s vehicle.”
It’s sitting there on the side of the highway waiting to ruin someone’s day.