HOUSTON - It is a horrifying sight, a highway nightmare playing out right before your eyes.
Automobile dash cameras capture terrifying video of mattresses, steel bars, pipes, wooden planks and other road debris falling off the backs of pickup trucks, cars and commercial tractor-trailers.
When the debris hits the cars traveling behind those vehicles, they turn into deadly projectiles at highway speeds.
“When it falls off, that stuff is traveling 65, 75, 85 miles an hour and it is headed straight for you,” DPS Trooper Richard Standifer said.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 500 people a year are killed in road-debris accidents.
Another 11,000 people are injured.
It happened to 33-year-old Tracey White of Bryan, Texas.
White, wife and the mother of three children, was riding with her husband on Highway 21 when a heavy piece of iron fell off a truck and crashed through the windshield of her car.
White was killed.
Members of the Houston Police Truck Enforcement Division have made it their mission to force commercial truck drivers into tying their loads down safely.
On the day we traveled with them, they stopped an 18-wheeler hauling crushed cars that had a total of four heavy wooden planks that were completely untied.
“Oh, it’s very dangerous. It’s 100 percent (true) that those boards could have killed somebody if they come flying off that truck,” said Officer Mark Chaney of HPD Truck Enforcement. "It absolutely can kill people. Here you have debris coming off and cars all over the road are trying to avoid it. Now you have mass confusion on the freeway.”
But it’s not just big trucks.
According to Standifer, mattresses weighing 30, 40, 50 pounds often come loose and blow off the tops of vehicles when the owners fail to secure them properly.
To prove it, Standifer and I tied a mattress to the roof of an SUV using twine, which is what many stores will offer to transport your mattress home on top of your car or SUV.
Then, on a closed-off airport runway with Standifer following me and five different cameras capturing the action, I took off with a mattress tied to the top of my Ford Explorer.
I hit speeds of 45 to 50 miles per hour, and the mattress started to lift off the roof and strain against the twine.
I hit 60 miles per hour, 65 miles per hour, and pow.
At 65 miles per hour the mattress snapped the twine, and flew off the vehicle and came barreling right toward Standifer, who was following me.
How could we have prevented this?
“All you need is a set of ratchet straps," Standifer said.
The trooper said the simple, cheap and most effective way to secure the load on your car or truck is by using ratchet straps.
You can buy them for as little as $5 to $10 each at any hardware store, or buy a package of four for about $15.
The straps are made of strong, heavy material and are equipped with heavy steel hooks and a ratcheting mechanism to allow you to tie your load down quickly and safely.
After tying our mattress down a second time, this time with ratchet straps, we ran the test again.
We took off like a shot and hit speeds all the way up to 75 miles per hour.
This time the mattress stayed put.
“You use twine or string or something weak like that and you are going to lose your load,” Standifer said. “The ratchet straps will work for you and they are very inexpensive.”
Experts have three tips to stay safe:
Step One: Stay Back
Apply the brakes gently and create some space between you and the vehicle that is losing its load.
Step Two: Switch Lanes
Switch lanes safely and carefully when you can to move yourself out of the line of fire, in other words out of the pathway of the debris.
Step Three: Pull Over And Report It
Safely get off the road when you can and call either the non-emergency number for the police in your area or call the DPS Roadside Assistance Number that is on the back of your driver’s license at 1-800-525-5555.
To be extra cautious, you can program the number into your cellphone.
If you see a vehicle lose its load in front of you on the highway, Standifer said to slow your speed, safely switch lanes to get out of the path of the falling debris and get off the road.
You can also call the non-emergency number for the local police department in that jurisdiction.