PHOENIX (3 On Your Side) - Tires, mattresses, a couch, and a shopping cart are among the trash recently pulled off of highways in Maricopa County. "These things can fly up and hit a windshield, break a windshield, damage a car severely," said Doug Nick, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Transportation. "These are potentially pieces that will tear up a car if they fly apart."

The debris is not just damaging. It can be dangerous -- even deadly. According to a study by AAA, more than 200,000 crashes over four years involved debris on the road, and 500 people were killed.

Last year, Mesa police officer Sean Stoddard nearly died in a rollover crash on Route 60 after he slowed traffic to get a ladder out of the road and was rear-ended. Ten months later, he is still recovering from his injuries. "I try not to focus on the anger, the frustration, the disappointment," he recently told Arizona's Family. "I try to focus on, 'Where can I go? What can I do? Who can I help?'"

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In a separate incident in early 2021, Jose Barboza was injured when a two-pound piece of scrap metal flew through his windshield on the Loop 101. "It hit me first in the shoulder, then the other edge cut my right ear lobe in half," he said during an interview after the incident.

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Every year, ADOT's 14-person incident-response unit rolls on as many as 12,000 calls for accident cleanup and debris removal.

"One of the big problems is overloading," Nick said.

It is illegal to drive with an unsecured load in Arizona, and according to the Department of Public Safety, hundreds of drivers are cited for violations every year. Data from the agency shows that across the state in 2019, DPS issued 367 citations for unsecured loads. In 2020, drivers received 325 citations. And so far this year, there have been 149 citations. Civil penalties can cost up to $1,000.

"It's just common sense," Nick said. "If you think something has potential it could fly out, then it needs to be secured or cover it."

Unsecured loads can be dangerous, even deadly

For everyone else on the road, the goal is to avoid the dangerous debris. At DrivingMBA in Scottsdale, students can take courses in the school's defensive driving lab to learn how to navigate the unexpected. "Always look for your outs, and if you don't have outs, position yourself where you will," said Maria Wojtczak, the owner of DrivingMBA. "That's what we call defensive, strategic driving."

Wojtczak says strategic driving includes keeping enough space between you and other vehicles. "If you can keep at least four seconds behind a vehicle, you've got the room to stop," Wojtczak said.

There is an easy way to measure it while you're in the driver's seat. "Let's say you pass a tree or a sign, and then you count, 'one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand," Wojtczak suggested. "Three seconds is the least you should have. Six seconds would be great. That's how you stay safe out there, how you avoid debris on the roads."

That debris includes a sink and pool toys that were recently spotted on ADOT cameras on local highways.

"This is a constant, constant job," Nick said. "This [dumpster] will be emptied out, and before too long, it will be full again, unfortunately."

Copyright 2021 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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